December 16, 2013 12:00 PM

For years MasterChef judge Graham Elliot blamed his expanding waistline on his growing culinary career. “You know the phrase ‘Don’t trust a skinny chef’? That justified my size,” he says. His attitude changed, however, when he couldn’t participate in his son Mylo’s kindergarten field day last year. “Some kids put a soccer ball under their shirts saying, ‘Look, I’m Mylo’s dad!'” says Elliot, 36. “Seeing how embarrassed my son got was a slap in the face. I thought, ‘I need to get this fixed.'”

So after eight years of contemplating weight-loss surgery, Elliot – who once tipped the scales at nearly 400 lbs. – finally went under the knife in July for a sleeve gastrectomy, in which a doctor removed 80 percent of his stomach and reduced it to the size of a banana. Since then the 6’2″ award-winning chef has lost 123 lbs. and overhauled his lifestyle. Now, at work, instead of diving into fattening dishes like risotto with Cheez-Its, “I ask them to make me a salmon fillet with a side of vinaigrette. I’m supposed to have 5 oz., but I eat about 3 oz. and I’m full,” says the restaurateur, who opens his newest eatery in Greenwich, Conn., Dec. 9. “My health has completely turned around. Surgery was a great stepping stone to where I want to be.”

A husky kid whose family jumped from one naval base to another, Elliot packed on the pounds as a freshman in high school. “I felt very alone, and food became my best friend,” he says. “I started putting on weight, which led to being bullied and fistfights. I was so depressed by 11th grade I had to get professional treatment,” says Elliot. “As difficult as that was, it allowed me to start the journey to being happy.”

But it didn’t help solve his unhealthy eating habits. By the time Elliot became the youngest four-star chef in America at age 27, “I would eat three burgers at 2 a.m. as a stress-reliever,” he says. “It was self-destructive.” In terms of weight loss, “we tried a personal trainer, a strict protein-only diet. We exhausted all options,” says his wife, Allie, 28.

Surgery became Elliot’s saving grace. “The changes have really been fantastic,” says Elliot’s surgeon Dr. Vivek Prachand. “I’m most proud about how he has incorporated exercise into his lifestyle.” Elliot now runs three miles without stopping and hopes to enroll in next year’s Chicago marathon. Photos of his kids – Mylo, 6 (his son from a previous marriage), Conrad, 3, and Jedediah, 1 – hang in front of his treadmill to keep him motivated. “I hope to teach my boys that it’s important to embrace a healthy lifestyle,” he says, “and that they will know me as a dad who takes care of himself.”

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