“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde

Putting Sarah Wood in charge of the gastronomic delicacies that end up in front of diners at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen is like assigning an Alcoholics Anonymous dropout to run a brewery.

Wood is a Houston transplant who now lives in Mid-City who loves food so much that she previously allowed herself to balloon up to linebacker dimensions.

But that was the “then” Sarah Wood. Today, there’s the “now” Wood; the Wood who was selected to become the first non-professional model and actual client of Weight Watchers ever to appear as a cover girl on the organization’s national magazine.

Wood’s hands are on her hips as she surveys the 165-pound frame in the mirror. She is about 75 pounds trimmer than the woman in the photo sitting on a nearby coffee table.

“When I hit 235 [pounds], and when my size 20 clothes became too tight, I knew it was time to do something,” she says. “I couldn’t go another day like that. It was either lose weight and start looking human again, or rent myself out as a billboard. Everybody right now tells me how great I look. Compared to what I was, maybe.

But I’ve still got a ways to go. My goal weight is 134. Right now, I’m at 165. I’m going to keep going until I reach that goal.”

Which may not be such a grind if Wood were a streetcar conductor or a bank clerk. But, “My official title at K-Paul’s is ‘bakery manager,’” Wood says. “Another way of saying it is, ‘pastry chef,’ but actually, I’m kinda the ‘lunch lady.’ I work in the kitchen during lunch three days a week. I cook in the kitchen, make sandwiches and lunch orders, and sometimes at night, I’ll work in the kitchen on the line with the fried fish and the salads or appetizers. Or, I’ll help plate food. And then Chef [iconic owner, Paul Prudhomme] has a catering company and we do catering off-site. So, when we have those, I cook there and at off-site parties. In short, I’m around food all the time. It’s always right there in front of me.”

It isn’t like Wood was walking down Chartres Street and popped into K-Paul’s on a whim one afternoon to apply as sous chef and things just sort of, well you know, “blossomed” from there. For the woman who now looks with a yawning passivity on the gems of Bacchanalia, food has never been far from the core of her life.

“I went to Mississippi University for Women, up in Columbus,” Wood says. “I eventually got a BS degree in culinary arts – food – an art minor and a business minor. After my junior year, I had to do an internship so I went to K-Paul’s for the summer in 2002. I had never been to New Orleans for longer than a weekend prior to that … When that summer was over, I went back to school and graduated. All I thought about all year was how much I really liked New Orleans. I had fallen in love with K-Paul’s. When I left that summer, Executive Chef Paul Miller, who I answered to, kept telling me to make sure I came back. I did come back and went to work full-time in the summer of ’03.”

When Wood starts talking about “pretty big” these days, she isn’t talking about her career path or plans in the restaurant business, she’s talking about the size to which her derriere and surrounding regions had grown in her first years on the job at K-Paul’s. It is a two-word phrase that also measures her commitment to taking off the pounds.

“Losing weight is like everything else worth doing, you have to make up your mind and put everything you have into it. I remember I taught myself the difference between ‘eating’ and ‘tasting,’ which is something I had to do as a chef,” she says. “I realized I had a love-hate relationship with food. I love food; I love to prepare food and eat food. Food is my passion. But food hates me. I used to wake up thinking about food and go to bed thinking about food. That was the fat girl in me.

Food was at the center of everything in my life. And, I knew that this wasn’t something that came later in life when I got to New Orleans. I struggled in elementary school. And I just kept going and kept going and one day I woke up thinking about doughnuts for breakfast and realized I was 235 pounds.”

Wood turned her thinking from doughnuts to vegetables, and began kicking the air to a Tae Bo video. “I figured I had only my dog watching me as I looked retarded, kicking the air and jumping around in my bedroom. Still, I knew I needed more than that. I hadn’t seen the inside of a gym since high school, but I joined one of those 24/7 gyms so I could go when it was convenient. I really didn’t want to join because fat people don’t go to gyms. The only thing you find there are the beautiful people; you know the skinny girls and the pumped-up guys. I was really hesitant about going, but I knew that I had to do something. So I joined.”

Wood also rounded off her new attitude about food by joining Weight Watchers.

“It was the best thing I ever did,” she says. “But I remember when I first started, I went to one meeting early and there were only a few people there. One man was going on and on about how much he loved the tuna salad sandwiches at Subway: he gets a 12-inch tuna salad [sandwich] and eats half for lunch and the other six inches in the evening. Well, the leader was trying to convince him to eat the ‘fru fru’ grain from Whole Foods. And he says he can’t do that because he eats only sandwiches, and the tuna salad was his favorite. The leader told him that that can be deceiving because of the mayonnaise in the tuna salad. And that mayonnaise is loaded with points [the measuring stick of the Weight Watchers program] … I couldn’t take it anymore. I thought, ‘I am in Weight Watchers hell here.’ So I stood up and told the guy that the tuna salad and the meatball with cheese [sandwiches] both have the same points value. Things calmed down … So in walks another woman and she raises her hand and asks, ‘How many points does the tuna salad sandwich at Subway have?’”

Nobody said losing weight would be easy. But then, nobody has ever convinced Wood that just living life would be a breeze.

“Everybody has struggles in some area of life,” she says. “It’s the eternal struggle: skin, hair, boobs too big, boobs to small … Nobody is immune. My struggle is my weight and I recognize that. I know that I will always struggle with that. I will never be able to just close my eyes and eat whatever I want. First thing I had to do is admit this is reality and I had to come to terms with it. If you want to succeed, you’ve got to admit it’s not just a diet or exercise. it’s a lifestyle change. I can’t lose all the weight I want and then go back to eating like I did. I’d be right back where I started. I have to do this for the rest of my life.”

It is a hot afternoon in late summer. The lunch business at K-Paul’s had been brisk but it is approaching 4 p.m., that magical time when the staff all sit down and eat together as a family. Shoptalk is never far off. Somebody relates one man at lunch who went on and on about an old K-Paul standard, the sweet potato pecan pie, and polished off three huge slices all the while singing its praises.

“That four o’clock meal is a big challenge,” Wood admits. “The chefs take turns cooking. The food they cook is usually something that may put on a few pounds, like fried chicken, so I started bringing my own meal in a paper bag. Still, it’s just like coming home in the evening to sit around the table with family. When I was ‘big’ I’d sit down and just dig in like the rest of the staff. But now since I have become more weight conscious, everybody helps out … They all chip in. They all know I do Weight Watchers and [go to] the gym and I’m very careful about what I eat and they all keep me in line … they call me on ‘how many points is that?’ I feel like I have accountability to them as well now. I call them my ‘food police.’”

And as they eat, Wood’s food police not only talk, they listen. They hear how she adds cornstarch instead of butter to thicken her sauces at home, and how a specialty cheese that’s low in calories makes a simple plate of spinach a divine meal. She continues, ”I still love food; don’t get me wrong. Only now, that love affair is a two-way street. Food and I have mutual respect for one another … don’t you think?”

With that, Wood runs her thumb under her waistband.