This is hardcore. Kickboxing and kettle bells. Sprint intervals and salads. Welcome to the new face of cheffing, 2018-style.
A seismic shift? Certainly. Not too long ago in the chef world, hardcore meant hitting the town in the company of beer and greasy food after a double shift then backing it up the next day. But something's changed. Blame it on the wellness zeitgeist or just call it the maturing of a bunch of former wild guys. In a profession synonymous with physical burnout, smart chefs with an eye on longevity are now more likely to be raising a sweat at their local gym, eating clean and green and performing sun-greeting asanas than they are carousing into the wee small hours.
Why this notoriously hedonistic profession? Why now? Maybe they're taking the rockstar imprimatur seriously (cautionary tale: Meatloaf). Maybe it's a pandemic of future-proofing against a world where burnout is common. Whatever the case, it's a recognisable cultural shift – and the reality is, where these guys lead, younger chefs will follow. Here's how six leading Australian chefs are busy kicking the profession's unhealthy image to the kerb.
The owner of the all-conquering Attica stays at the top of his game thanks to a combination of kickboxing and salad.
I've really been working on my fitness for the past six months. I got really sick last year. I'd been to Mexico for work and I got influenza, my immune system was totally smashed. I just got fed up with my health. Through diet and exercise I've now lost 19 kilos. I'm down to the size shorts I wore when I was 22.
These days it's lots of water, no beer, it's so fattening.Dan Hong
I'm doing a thing called 9Round. There's a studio near my house where you do kickboxing circuit training. There are a lot of exercises to complete in 35 to 40 minutes. You go hard for three minutes. Some of it is just punishing. Everyone wears a heart monitor so you can see the effort you're putting in. My punching bag for my home gym is arriving today. I've also got an elliptical trainer, stationary bike, rower, kettle bells and weights. It's great having it all at home so if I can't get out because of the kids or if I get home from work late I can still do some exercise. I also have a one-on-one training session once a week. I can smash myself physically quite easily but I don't know how to get the best out of my body.
My diet has also undergone a massive change. I'm basically eating salad. Fruit salad for breakfast, a compound salad for lunch made up with raw vegetables and lacto-fermented pickles or sauerkraut. I have a whole fridge full of preserves and basic condiments, a good bottle of soy, hot sauce. It's pretty much a vegan diet, although it's not like I set out to do it that way. It's just a really clean way of eating after having been so sick for so long. When I cut sugar out a really profound thing happened, it was a real high. It's almost addictive not to eat sugar. But I went to Kalimera Souvlaki for lunch the other day, so there is time out sometimes.
High intensity: Dan Hong has a session with his trainer twice a week and does F45 training (pictured). Photo: Wolter Peeters
The executive chef at Mr Wong, MsG's and El Loco spent his young adulthood testing the boundaries, but these days the inventor of the infamous Stoner's Delight dessert eschews alcohol and fried food for clean eating and circuit training.
My moment I realised I had to change was when my wife was pregnant with our second child. I was big-time overweight – 95 kilos. My lightest I got to was 75, now I'm 80 but I just got back from holidays so I ate and drank as much as I liked. I try not to look at the scales though, you just look at yourself in the mirror. I try not to eat too much sugar. I used to drink bubble tea every day and eat ice-cream at work.
These days it's lots of water, lots of brown rice and quinoa, a protein like fish or steak and green vegetables. I never drink on a weeknight anymore and on weekends I'll have one or two glasses of wine – no beer, it's so fattening. Maybe a whiskey.
The hardest thing is not to snack. At Mr Wong if I'm standing near the barbecue section it's so easy to grab a bit of roast duck, or the char sui pork bits or to grab a piece of salt and pepper squid off a plate.
Before I started training three years ago I'd never stepped foot in a gym in my life. I still remember my first session with my personal trainer. I couldn't walk for a week. I have a session with my trainer twice a week and I do F45 training – it's sort of like Cross Fit, high-intensity circuit training – four or five times a week. I do most of my training before my three kids wake up. I love it. You rock up, do the high-intensity thing, and you're done for the day.
Shane Delia trains five days a week. Photo: Simon Schluter
Like all chefs, I did everything to excess. Food, booze, lifestyle, no boundaries, no accountability for what I was doing to my body. But mental and physical health go hand in hand and until I could get physically healthy I couldn't deal with my ADD, which I was diagnosed with when I was 13 or 14.
When I had kids it was a lightbulb moment. I couldn't be this big fat dad who can't help out. I tried what everybody does by dieting. But I also need structure and leadership, so I found a personal trainer I can communicate with and keep it fun. I do a lot of boxing and strength training. I only run when I'm being chased. I'm not athletic at all, but now I can punch through a brick wall.
I train five days a week, and I always say that I train so I can eat. I love food, and to restrict myself is really hard. But now I'm more conscious of the quantity I'm eating and when I'm eating. Part of my mental health is enjoying my food. I'll eat a bucket of fried chicken maybe twice a year. Both of my grandparents passed away from preventable diseases like diabetes and obesity complications and I don't want to go that way.
There's an open offer to all of our staff at Maha that anyone who wants to start boxing at my gym, I'm happy to pay their membership. Has anyone taken it up yet? Not one!
There was no shortage of alcohol and at least one pork bun a night. I also blame the ends of a deep-fried rib which I put the most weight on from. I used to trim it off and wow, a delicious rectangle. So good, especially when you put it in one of those soft white fluffy buns. But it was just time to change something about three and a half years ago.
I needed to be in better shape for work, for family life. These days I take a lot more care about what I put into my mouth. Half the time I don't need to eat whatever I'm thinking about eating. I just pause and go, hang on, do I really need this? I don't eat potatoes anymore. I try to avoid carbs. Staff meals are now always a salad, always a vegetable and some protein. I try to pressure them, but I can't dictate to everybody what they eat, so if they're going to make sweet and sour pork I just let them go for it and skip the pork myself.
Between the [Merivale] venues I look after we have 10 or so people who train together regularly, Monday to Friday at 9.30am. We'll do weights, runs, kettle bells. Saturday I'll do Pilates, and I try to fit in two bike rides a week as well, of about 45 to 55 kilometres. But I like the team training the best. Getting them together and watching them in pain, although this morning it was just me and a new guy who's only been here two weeks. It was pretty funny, he was just dying.
George Calombaris is developing a Hellenic Health menu based on the Mediterranean diet, with a 4:1 ratio of plant-based foods to meat. Photo: Supplied
It was after my son James started walking and I wanted to kick the ball around with him that I decided to clean up my act. Eighty per cent of the problem was what I stuck in my mouth. At the time I'd eat lunch on the run in the kitchen – a couple of ends of bread rolls covered in butter, generally something fried. I've stopped all of that binge eating now.
I have strict guidelines for staff dinner. I think it's important to lead from the front. It's got to be balanced, although we have one naughty day a week. I've banned things like Coke in the kitchen and Red Bull. Energy should come from food, not sugar.
MasterChef makes it hard for me. Some days I'm filming I could be eating 24 dishes but my way of dealing with it is to kick breakfast, drink loads of water and make that food pretty much all I eat all day.
I think mindfulness is very important. I've started meditating twice a day and it's changed my life. We now have a full-time cultural manager at Made Establishment, and part of the job is to help implement wellbeing in the organisation. I also train with a personal trainer three times a week for half an hour. He's the only person apart from my wife who yells at me and gets away with it.
The Melbourne-based pastry chef of Dessert Evenings, a dessert degustation event running since 2010, is a long-time yoga devotee. Recently he founded Chefs of Yoga with fellow chef and qualified yoga teacher Paolo Arlotta.
I don't get high off my own supply. I did in the first couple of years, everything was interesting and there were always spoons being dipped into things. I avoid eating sweet stuff now because I feel it wakes that part of my brain that makes me keep eating. My tactic when I'm cooking is to put any trimmings straight in the bin.
There was a time not too long ago when a fat chef was a good chef. But the reality is that it all catches up with you. I started yoga seriously about 10 years ago when the lower back was tight, the calves were tight. It's the repetitive motion, the leaning over, the one-dimensional direction you tend to work in a kitchen was really taking its toll.
I got to know Paolo practising yoga. We were at the same studio when he was at Vue de Monde working crazy hours, and we both chose to live a different life without forgetting where we came from.
Chefs of Yoga came out of our desire to help other chefs. We're running yoga classes every three to four weeks for chefs and front of house staff. We're not trying to change the hospitality industry. We're just trying to plant a seed with chefs to be more aware of their bodies and mental health. It's become commonplace in the corporate world to do these things for staff and hopefully it's a message that resonates.