Being a chef is undoubtedly one of the most difficult jobs on the planet. It’s a profession that deals with long, odd hours and thankless customers, not to mention the inevitable cuts, burns, heavy lifting and big egos. It’s why we’re constantly in awe of what they do and why shows like Top Chef and Chef’s Table have been so successful for decades.
As we were discussing the upcoming season two of The Bear in the office a couple months ago, one editor commented how he thought actor Jeremy Allen White was noticeably too fit to play a chef. Of course, as with any movie or television show, actors are generally better-looking than the real thing — hell, they’re even better-looking than their real-life selves after makeup, lighting, post-production and everything else. But the comment did start a conversation in the office about chefs and how they stay in shape.
As none of us InsideHook editors are chefs ourselves, we went to the pros for answers. We asked, in a manner of ways, is it possible for chefs to stay fit when they’re working odd hours, constantly tasting and immersed in a world that isn’t always a shining beacon of good health? Some of their answers were expected, some surprised us and others made us realize that it doesn’t really matter what field you work in — if you’re dedicated to wellness, you’re going to make exercise and nutrition part of your routine, no matter your schedule.
Kitchen Culture Is Changing
If you’ve read Anthony Bourdain’s breakout book Kitchen Confidential, then you’ve had a peek behind the kitchen door and all of the debauchery that has historically come with working back of house (and front of house, for that matter). But times are changing, and although no two kitchens are alike, pro chefs who’ve been in the industry for a while are noticing a difference.
“I honestly think that a handful of years ago, that [Carmy is too fit] may have been a pretty fair statement, and still is to an extent,” says Evan Hennessey, owner and executive chef of Stages at One Washington and The Living Room. “However, I’m seeing more chefs and BOH folks put down the late night beer for a change of pace and give effort towards a more fit lifestyle. I also believe there is a mentality shift as generations move along — the older being more set in their ways, and the younger seems to openly value life more.”
In episode one of season two, we see that Carmy really doesn’t know what to do with his free time — after going home from the restaurant early, he finds himself back there to work on something, anything, to get the new space opened faster. But other than that small moment, we don’t see much of Carmy’s life outside of the restaurant. Does he run or lift in the morning? It’s possible that he does exercise, even if we don’t see it. “Maybe the character trains from time to time,” says Ryan Bartlow, chef and owner at Ernesto’s NYC. “Or they watch what they eat. Or don’t eat much. Being in the kitchen demands a lot of time on your feet, which can lead to burning a decent amount of calories — substantially more than sitting at a desk all day.”
As we dive into season two of The Bear, it’s clear that it’s just as intentional as the debut season, especially when it gives us a glimpse into the real issues and struggles that a restaurant faces every day — from broken equipment and health department inspections to the often high-stress environment. “I think the commentary The Bear has made on kitchen culture and toxic masculinity is smart and insightful,” says Jason Hammel, the chef and owner of Lula Cafe. “Chris and Courtney Storer have exposed toxic kitchen culture in a real visceral way, so visceral that many chefs can’t even watch the show.”
Just as the script is deliberate, so is the casting, especially with an ensemble of actors that works so well together. And that likely means that Allen White was cast for a specific reason. “I don’t think it’s a surprise or a cheap ploy that Carmy is as ripped as he is,” Hammel adds. “Rather, it’s a brilliant piece of casting. Is it unrealistic? Maybe the biceps, but there are tons of super fit chefs out there now. Lots of role models.”
Fitness Takes Dedication, No Matter Your Career
The reputation that chefs are partiers isn’t unwarranted. When everyone around you is going to the bar after a shift, that camaraderie is important and often a nice way to unwind. (We go for after-work drinks all the time at InsideHook, and you probably have at some point, too.) But no matter what you do for work, you have to make time for fitness if it’s something you want in your life — the time just won’t magically appear.
“It’s certainly a challenge for most chefs to find the time to work out consistently because of the long hours the job entails, yet if it’s a priority or habit in your life, it’s easy to find the time,” says Joey Fecci, chef de cuisine at Yolan.
And sometimes that means skipping post-shift drinks. But for the chefs we spoke to, especially as they get older, it’s necessary to find that balance. “There’s 24 hours in a day,” Bartlow says. “Make the time. Maybe don’t spend as much time at a bar after work. Go home. Get up early. You will feel better.”
Aside from the physical benefits of exercise, it’s also positive for your mental health and can even help with depression. So for a lot of chefs — who spend their workday in a fast-paced, hectic environment — hitting the gym provides a moment of calm before the storm. “Something about lifting weights and listening to my headphones settles me,” Hammel says. “It’s so simple, so immediate. It’s the opposite of what I’m going to face in the coming day. Counting to eight feels like an accomplishment. For me, the hour and a half I spend in the mornings at the gym are quiet, introspective and peaceful.”
Strike a Balance Between Late-Night Takeout and Serious Meal Planning
We saw it in season one — Carmy comes home from a shift, scarfs a PB&J and falls asleep on the couch, only to be roused when his smoke detector goes off because he forgot about the rest of his dinner in the toaster oven. For many chefs, this scene has been all too common throughout their careers.
“I would order a pizza a half hour before leaving work, pick it up and just crush the whole thing while sitting on the couch,” Hennessey says. “Then fall asleep right there.”
“I love to eat,” Bartlow adds. “I love to cook. I have a sweet tooth. I’m the first one to say there is nothing I like more than a late-night sandwich on the couch when I get home with some chips and a seltzer. I could eat some ice cream or slices of pizza or tacos al pastor every night.”
But just like with fitness, healthy eating is often a deliberate decision because who doesn’t want to eat delicious burgers and pizza and tacos all the time? For these chefs, it’s all about balance, especially as they get more settled in their careers.
“Literally just ate a grain bowl because I was hungry and then had my pastry chef give me three desserts to taste,” Hammel says. “For this I recommend finding the simple things at work that satisfy your needs from a nutrition standpoint and then just doing your best. At this point in my career, I am trying to stick to very plain and simple, easily digestible foods for my ‘main meals’ and then leave all the tasting, like the bite-sized bits, to the desserts and sauces and starches I have to try during the course of my work day.”
“One of the biggest shifts I have been adamant about is not only a healthier choice in food, but when I eat,” Hennessey says. “I now eat a good balanced breakfast, then make sure to take food with me so I have healthy choices throughout the day. And for after work, I keep a granola bar and apple in my backpack to eat. That way I won’t eat too much too close to bedtime. Late-night eating has got to be one of the worst choices, besides the food you choose to eat at that time.”
Even if you work in an office, you’ve likely attempted to meal prep so there’s food in the fridge and you don’t have to think about cooking after a long day. It’s a tactic that some chefs have employed in their lives, too. “It’s definitely true that most chefs don’t love to go home and cook for themselves after cooking an entire day at work,” Fecci says. “I’ve found that planning out my week in advance and either meal-prepping or just filling the pantry and fridge with healthy foods is a great way to mitigate this. I like to go to the farmers market on Saturday mornings and stock my fridge with easy, simple, healthy options to eat before and after work.”
Find a Kitchen Culture That Fits Your Ethos
In any collaborative job, the people you work with make all the difference in whether you enjoy where you work. The kitchen is no different. “Find a place to work that also prioritizes health and wellness,” Hennessey says. “The more this happens, the more the industry, and restaurants, will adapt to that, and we will start to see a noticeable shift. There are plenty of restaurants, and more so nowadays, that have these priorities and put forth incredible food and hospitality.”
“Every kitchen culture is unique and specific to itself,” Fecci says. “Our kitchen at Yolan is very supportive of mental health and wellness. For example, I love getting chefs together for what we call ‘Wednesday Stairs,’ something specific to our community where we meet at the Capitol stairs here in Nashville and do a morning workout. It’s fun when you don’t have to do it alone. It creates a sense of community and accountability.”
Of course, you can’t solely rely on others to keep you motivated — it has to begin and end with your own goals, especially if your aim is longevity. “Everything in moderation,” Bartlow says. “It’s normal to go out with staff after work and hang out. Yet, be careful you don’t get caught up in it every night. It can lead you down a dark path that I know some people can’t come back from. It usually hinders their career. Listen to your body and you should be all right.”
And when all else fails, always have a gym routine and reset meal that can get you back on track after a few too many late nights of beer and pizza. “Brown rice, lentils and broccoli solves a lot of problems,” Hammel says.
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