Amy Elisa Keith
January 15, 2010 10:05 AM

He serves high-end food to starry diners and pals like Julianne Moore and Gwyneth Paltrow, his costar on the PBS series Spain … on the Road Again, but this year celebrity chef Mario Batali is also catering to himself.

Batali, 49, just dropped 45 lbs. by watching what he eats and cooks. “I was up to about 280 lbs. last year and now I’m down to about 235 lbs.,” he tells PEOPLE. “I’m working on it to get down to 200 lbs. I feel good all the time, that s my problem. So even at 280, I didn’t feel tired or sluggish. I always have energy. I wake up, I feel good, I’m exercising.”

At one to two hours a day, Batali estimates that he’s exercising twice as much as previously did. “What prompted the change was that I saw a picture or two of myself and I didn t like the way I looked,” he says. “Plus, I have a family and I want to be here for a long time.”

While Italian food may not seem like go-to diet food, Batali says “it’s more about portion control than actual ingredient selection. It s really about calorie intake and calorie outtake. You just have to eat enough to get you to the next meal, not every time you see a restaurant or see a plate do you have to eat.”

For Batali, who also lent his voice this year to the animated film Fantastic Mr. Fox alongside George Clooney, that means keeping his food intake light.

“I try not to eat breakfast,” he says. “I try to have an espresso around 10 or 11 a.m. I try to have vegetables or salad and stay vegetarian through my evening meal. It’s really working for me. I try to eat half portions of whatever they serve me at a restaurant and things as small as my fist or smaller when I eat in the daytime. At dinner I try to have a regular meal, some kind of protein, salad and vegetables.”

Want to try one of Batali’s healthy pasta dishes that he may serve to celebrity pals like Paltrow? See below for his whole grain rigatoni recipe!

Mario Batali’s Whole Grain Rigatoni with Tuscan-Style Cauliflower and Pecorino

Mario Batali's Whole Grain Rigatoni
Joseph De Leo

• 4 tablespoons virgin olive oil
• 1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
• 6 mint leaves
• ½ tablespoon crushed red pepper
• 1 5-in. head of cauliflower, about 1 to 1¼ lbs.
• 1-lb. rigatoni pasta
• ½ cup grated pecorino cheese
• 2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
• 1 bunch Italian parsley, finely chopped to yield ¼ cup

Serves: 4

Bring 6 quarts water to boil in a large spaghetti pot and add 2 tablespoons salt.

In a 14- to 18-in. sauté pan, heat oil until just smoking and add onion, mint and red pepper. Cook until soft, about 5 to 6 minutes.

Meanwhile, remove leaves and base core from cauliflower and chop into ¼-in. pieces. Break the florets away from the central core and size them similarly. Cut the core into ¼-in. coins and throw all the pieces into the sauté pan with the onions. Lower the heat to medium and cook, stirring regularly for about 12 to 15 minutes, until cauliflower is softened and light brown but not mushy.

Cook the rigatoni according to package instructions until “al dente,” about 8 to 12 minutes, and drain in colander. Toss hot pasta into pan with cauliflower and add grated cheese, black pepper and parsley. Toss to coat and serve immediately.

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