After winning Top Chef All Stars, I needed a new goal. I felt like I had to continue to stretch and challenge myself. Not just in cooking, or being a chef or restaurateur, but also physically and mentally. I've always been a finish line kind of guy. Point me in the direction and tell me to go for this long and this hard, and I will die trying. I guess you could say that I am strong-willed. My wife would say stubborn.
When I signed on with a new manager early this year, I gave her a few wish list items. One was running the New York City marathon. As a boy and native New Yorker, I grew up watching the race and thought having the honor to participate would be amazing. We were lucky enough to pair up with Alliance for a Healthier Generation to lead a team of five other first-time marathoners with a combined fundraising goal of $50,000. The Alliance is working towards eliminating childhood obesity and teaching kids how to live healthier lifestyles. This is where I really could connect the dots.
See, I was sort of a latch-key kid. My parents worked hard and we lived a lower-middle class life. No complaints, but left to my own culinary whims as a kid I was subbing heavy whipping cream for milk in my morning cookie cereal. I made ham and cheese and potato chip sandwiches. I was drinking soft drinks like water. And water, like never. I was, as the kids might say now, living fat ... but not the p-h- kind.
So for the past few months, I've been training hard. I've run a half marathon or more every Saturday for the last six weeks. I'm up to 21 miles now with just under 30 days left before the big race. Now to understand just how momentous this milestone will be for me personally, I suppose I should take you back.
Here's a picture of me from 2002.
At the time, I was the chef at a small seafood restaurant in Atlanta. I was 29 years old and probably 60 pounds heavier than I am now. I worked six or seven day weeks, sunrise until late in the evening. I loved it. It was my entire life.
I had the good fortune to open up a namesake restaurant stemming from the hard work I put in at the seafood place. Now, an operating chef of any worthwhile eating establishment has to taste everything. And if you enjoy it, like most of us do, it's pretty easy to turn tasting all day long into eating a lot more than you should all day long. Combine that with an industry that is notorious for playing as hard as it works, and you're eating and drinking for fun long after you've eaten and drank for pay. It is a dangerous combination and I was heading in an unhealthy direction. I promptly put on another ten pounds with the stress of the opening. But a few tough months after "Blais" opened, it closed. It was the saddest thing that had happened to me at the time. I was locked out of my own restaurant. I had negative 600 dollars in my bank account. I was lost, and candidly, I was fat. But in retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened to me.
I was courting my wife at the time, who had also worked at the restaurant, and somehow, through incredible luck, salesmanship, and charm, I got her to buy into my ... well, I guess, "potential." She was a personal trainer in college. A soccer player. And a knockout to boot. She was finishing her master's degree in healthcare management. She loved football, and could hold her own in food and politics. She had a nice car, a pretty dog, and she smelled amazing. She was the total package. So, in trying to convince her I was half as worth it as she was to me, I decided to go jogging with her one day. I threw on my baggy shorts and Knicks jersey (Allan Houston, #20) to leisurely head out. All ego aside, she would just dust me. Day after day. It was only a few miles, but she would leave me sucking wind and plodding to the finish to catch her.
To complete the courtship, I decided to propose. It was probably a year after that first run together and what better way to symbolize our life ahead, the hills and valleys of a relationship, than to do it at the end of a race. On July 4, 2005, at the finish line of the Peachtree Road Race (the largest 10k in the country), I dropped to my knee and asked her to marry me. I figured the adrenaline and crowd would sway her to say yes.
I was right!
I managed to casually run for the next couple of years while operating different restaurants and beginning my television work. My favorite way of doing this was running between shifts at my restaurants. I would throw on some shorts and run a few miles after lunch and before dinner. I highly recommend this to any chefs reading out there. It is nice to get a little air in the middle of a long shift and the adrenaline propels you into dinner service!
While training for "Top Chef All Stars," I added physical training into my culinary regimen. I ran hard a few months before filming, and was lucky enough to find a treadmill to run on a few times during filming. There is a certain amount of physicality to competitive cooking. Hectic shoot schedules, eating and sleeping at strange hours and in strange places can mess with your body and mind. Going in fit paid off for me in the end, as I was running through giant markets, sandy beaches, and of course, darting my way through many strange kitchens; my body pushed when I needed it to.
These days, I have a pretty full travel calendar, but finding time for my weekly runs keeps me at peace and feeling strong. To start my training for the ING NYC Marathon I kicked off by running the Peachtree Road Race again; where my wife, our 3 year-old daughter and newborn met me at the finish line. Full circle, indeed. Running has changed my life, for the better. It has added years, a family and amazing experiences. Looking forward to another one on November 6, 2011. See you at the finish line.
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