When thinking of a successful chef, a few images might come to mind. You might picture a crisp embroidered Chef jacket stretched over a middle aged belly and matched with an equally crisp apron. Maybe the title evokes images of a brightly colored mohawk and plenty of knife tattoos. And maybe, you envision the lifestyle that traditionally comes with being a chef: the late nights, the obscene amounts of coffee, and the myriad of unhealthy habits that come with the fast paced work life of a restaurant kitchen.
What I can guarantee you don’t think of is a marathon running, family man like Chef Michael Chernow. Yes, you read correctly. In the midst of running the show at both the Meatball Shop and Seamore’s, Chef Michael is leading a team of other chefs through the 26.2 miles that make up the TCS New York City Marathon and across the finish line on the morning of November 4th 2018. With only three weeks until race day, I had the privilege of talking to Michael about his life as a chef, his life as an advocate for mental and physical health, and how he plans to combine the two to take his team all the way.
Michael Chernow has been involved in the restaurant industry as early as age 13. After receiving degrees in culinary arts and restaurant management from the French Culinary Institute, he along with his old friend, Daniel Holzman, opened the Meatball Shop in 2011. Five more locations of The Meatball Shop have since opened—in Williamsburg, the West Village, Chelsea, the Upper West Side, and the Upper East Side.
In 2015, Michael shifted his focus away from meat to fish and opened a seafood-centric restaurant called Seamore’s, focusing on using more sustainable and less branded species along with being an accessible and casual dining experience with high-quality and well-sourced food.
Michael has been featured in international and national publications,as well as on television shows and as the face of several topbrands. Michael supports City Harvest, New York City’s largest food rescue organization, as a member of the Food Council, a group of the city’s top chefs who help raise awareness of hunger in New York City.
The Chef’s Connection: You’ve spent the majority of your life in restaurants, which doesn’t exactly scream “healthy lifestyle” so, what is it that drives your passion for health and wellness?
Chef Michael Chernow: First and foremost, I’m a father, so being available for my children as long as humanly possible is a goal of mine. But I was passionate about health and wellness long before I was a dad. I made life changes early on in my 20s that really pushed me down the path to think about my health and wellness. It essentially saved my life. Thinking about what I put into my body and what I do with my body is a massive priority for me. With fitness, I know I created an atmosphere in my life where I can always win and feel good.
TCC: It takes a lot of discipline to to make that kind of shift and maintain it. Do you find it difficult to stay in shape in the hospitality industry? How do you balance training and working?
MC: Fitness is a massive part of my life. Without fitness, I don’t know where I would be. I fit fitness in no matter what. If I can only fit in 15 to 20 minutes or an hour and a half, I take that time. Being fit and healthy is a mental, spiritual and physical thing for me; it’s a three-fold priority in my life. When I’m spiritually, mentally and physically fit, I’m a better person, business owner, father, husband, brother, son, etc. This is all due in part to my dedication to fitness.But, it’s a practice for sure. I am very conscious about what I put into my body. I care deeply about nutrition. Fortunately, at Meatball Shop and Seamore’s , where I spend most of my time, there are many items on the menu that allow me to eat a variety of incredibly healthy meals five to six times a week. I’m not an angel, though. I splurge. I treat myself and have cheat meals, but I live by the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of my diet is healthy and clean, and the other 20 percent, I throw down a burger and fries.
TCC: I’d say burger and fries is a little more than 20 for me. But I’m not training to run a marathon like you are! Well not only training to run but leading an entire team through the 2018 NYC Marathon on November 4th. What I really want to know is: what’s the best pre-marathon meal? Meatballs??
MC: I actually like to run on a very light stomach. I don’t eat a big meal the night before a run, and I definitely don’t eat anything before I go on a run, which I tend to do in the morning. Post-marathon meal, however, is a different story. It’s my cheat meal for the year!
TCC: I can imagine! That would be my primary motivation for running the race to begin with. As the lead for City Harvest’s marathon team, how do you motivate your teammates to voluntarily run outside in NYC in November?
MCC: While training, I always tag @CityHarvest and include #WeAreCityHarvest in my posts about my runs and include photos and my run time. My teammates pay close attention to my runs and it’s a great motivator. Leading these guys through social media is a blessing since we don’t have to get together in person every day, but social media keeps us all connected. We also get together every six to eight weeks and catch up and see how everyone is doing. At City Harvest’s BID Against Hunger Event in October, I saw a bunch of the marathoners there and it felt great to catch up with them while also acting as an advocate for the incredible organization that City Harvest is. Being the team captain is an insane honor for me.
TCC: There are couple of weeks until the big race, how are you getting ready? How can someone who’s not in the best shape get ready?
MC: I’m running on a program where I run only three days a week. I run one super long run, one moderate run – from seven to nine miles, and then I run a pre-drill day, which gets the blood pumping. Two other days a week I do strength training and yoga. I would tell others not to think about a marathon as how many miles you have to put in. Take it step by step and start by setting three days aside. Be patient with yourself and start your run calm, cool, collected and comfortable. You should begin your run by not putting a lot of effort going into it, then every 15-20 minutes after your start, try and pick up the pace a little bit. Running, specifically in the beginning, should not feel as if you are overexerting yourself. If you feel you are exhausting yourself too quickly, just slow down. The hardest part of running is actually getting on your running shoes. At the end of the day, running long distance is not about how fast you can do it, unless you’re trying to win the race, which is not many people, outside of the top-tier competitors. So, getting through a 26.2 mile run is a massive feat, whether it takes you three and half hours or six and a half hours, it doesn’t matter. Take your time and be patient with yourself. Pre-stretch in the beginning, although not too much, and have a nice cool down at the end.
TCC: I love that advice. I think it’s a great approach to conquering such a big feat. A little bit at a time. I just started running a few months back and I was shocked by what I was capable of when I didn’t put too much stress on myself. And honestly that’s the best way to approach most problems, including the problems currently plaguing the hospitality industry, one bit at a time. If you could change one thing about the hospitality industry what would it be and how would you start the change?
MC: I love the hospitality so much; there’s little I would change. However, indulgence in the hospitality industry runs rampant. Indulgence in drinking and partying is something, unfortunately, the restaurant industry is known for. At Seamore’s and Meatball Shop, there is a zero tolerance policy for drinking on the job. I know it’s so easy to get brought down by alcohol. I’ve seen it happen a million times, and I’ve seen friends suffer. So, if there was one thing I could change, drinking and treating your body poorly should be shunned upon by business owners, not empowered.
TCC: Another issue that is on it’s way to receiving the attention it deserves is the amount of waste the hospitality industry can produce. City Harvest has always had the mission to reduce that waste. How has your work with City Harvest influenced the way you cook and eat?
MC: I try my best not to have any waste at all, ever. City Harvest has a very strict policy about how they can receive food from chefs, restaurants and food establishments. If a restaurant is wasting food, it typically goes into the garbage and that’s terrible. At Seamore’s and Meatball Shop, we try to have zero to no waste, because wasted food is just the same as hungry people all over the planet. There should be no food wasted. Period. Ever. This is a big, long war and I know City Harvest has its foot forward in this movement. Waste is something I try to steer clear of. We think about it constantly at my restaurants and I think about it at home when I cook with my own family.
TCC: Minimizing waste is increasing in importance and working in a restaurant leads to a lot of of opportunities to explore with different and unlikely combinations. What’s the craziest concoction from kitchen scraps?
MC: Everything but the kitchen sink meatloaf. I put everything into a baked meatloaf. Season it up real good; throw it into the oven and let it bake.
TCC : A good meatloaf is extremely underrated comfort food, especially this time of year. And Fall is an underrated season for food but it’s honestly my favorite. Do you have any ideas for upcoming fall menus?
MC : We just launched a new menu at both restaurant groups. Meatball Shop has incredible new menu items. We’ve got a lobster meatball that’s on the menu; a salmon meatball; and crab cake meatballs. We are stepping into the seafood healthy zone a little bit more over there. We also have an unbelievable fall kale salad at Meatball Shop now. At Seamore’s, we totally changed our sides menu. We have a couple new salads, a lobster Bolognese that is unbelievable, and a lobster mac and cheese that you can now get in a big portion. There are also a couple of soups and chowders on the menu. We have some really good stuff for the fall at both restaurants, and everyone should come check it out.
TCC : A lobster meatball sounds absolutely amazing. It seems like you have a focus on cooking up food that’s fun to eat as well as being delicious. What’s the most inventive thing you’ve ever created using an unlikely ingredient? Any current food obsessions?
MC : I deep fried a whole avocado, cut it in half and made it the base of an eggs Benedict for brunch at Seamore’s. It’s amazing! And celery root is my current obsession. I’ve been cooking with it a lot lately.
TCC : Deep fried avocado is one of the greatest discoveries of all time. The perfect combination of fatty, salty, and crispy. It’s definitely become one of my indulgences. What would you say is your deepest darkest food indulgence?
MC : Kraft Mac & Cheese.
TCC : Yikes. That is dark. But understandable. And the one ingredient you can’t stand?
Chef Michael Chernow is a great example of the evolving face of the hospitality industry. As a passionate restauranteur, a committed father and husband and a dedicated Fitness advocate, it easy to consider him somewhat of a modern day Renaissance man. Tune into the NYC Marathon on November 4th, to watch as he leads the City Harvest team to across the finish line.