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Chefs in Motion

The athletes outside of the kitchen

    Cooking, tasting, eating, cooking, more eating. The life of a chef, or any restaurant worker for that matter, can be racked with calories, not to mention the stress of working in a fast-paced, demanding environment. Perhaps that’s why so many in the dining and nightlife industries take up sports and other exercise to keep their bodies in shape, blood flowing, creative minds sharp and stress levels down. Some are even true athletes and competitors. We caught up with a couple of them: Laurent Gras, known as an avid road biker, clocking up to 500 miles per week when otherwise not in the kitchen at L2O and Shaw Lash, the executive chef of newbie XOCO—Rick Bayless’ latest quick-serve, Mexican street food concept—who is a life-time avid surfer, swimmer and most recently, a triathlete.

The Cyclist
    Since opening just two years ago, L2O has garnered national attention and accolades, not to mention serious media buzz. Gras’ artistic and elegant presentations of delicate seafood creations, with bold flavors and an almost whimsical approach, has allowed him to achieve a level of creativity not unlike that of his Lincoln Park neighbors Alinea or Charlie Trotter’s. In fact, Gras, a three-time Michelin star award-winner among many other achievements, has been compared to Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin for his mastery of seafood cooking. This makes sense, considering Gras grew up in Antibes, on the Cote d’Azur in France, which provided his family access to fresh seafood from the Mediterranean.
    Something else Gras picked up while there most of his life: cycling. And not just any cycling, but Lance Armstrong-esque, Tour de France-like hours upon hours of biking through open, country road.
    “Living in France, I could bike for miles there,” Gras says. “I was in the south of France and Monaco, and they were very nice places to do a lot of riding with some good hill climbing in the countryside. When I moved to Paris, though, it wasn’t the same. There was more bad weather, very flat roads, lots of traffic, angry people.” Gras is referring to the time he spent in Paris while chef de cuisine at Alain Ducasse’s namesake restaurant.
    Even after moving to New York to head up the Waldorf Astoria’s Peacock Alley, Gras managed to find the time—and the place—to continue cycling. He did so through the open roads in New Jersey, but faced challenges similar to those in Paris. “I did a lot of rollerblading in New York,” he says.
    A move to San Francisco, where he took the helm of the Fifth Floor restaurant, a local food and fish-focused restaurant, led him to explore mountain biking in the region’s hilly terrain. “I really liked mountain biking there,” he says. Many road bikers, including Lance, cross-train with mountain biking to challenge different leg and upper-body muscles and improve endurance and anaerobic (short, strong bursts of power) capabilities.
    Now in Chicago, he’s given up the mountain biking (consisting only of hilly forest preserve areas in Willow Springs and Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine) in exchange for more road biking up north.
    “In the spring, summer and fall, I usually bike three times a week, about 10 hours total or more,” Gras says. That’s typically broken down into a long, 5-hour ride, plus two shorter ones consisting of two to three hours each. That can amount to between 200 and 400 miles per week.
    For the longer rides, Gras has joined various groups who ride together in a pack, typically on Sunday mornings or other low-traffic times. “We’ll take Sheridan up to Highland Park and then take big roads up to Wisconsin,” he says. “It’s about 90 miles total.” Piece of cake, right?
    That said, the pressing question is how on earth does a master chef at one of the city's and country’s most acclaimed restaurants find the time to log all those miles?
    “I will bike before opening, and usually Tuesdays are a long ride because that’s when the restaurant is closed,” Gras says.
    All this cooking, standing in the kitchen for long hours and biking, as one would think, takes a heck of a lot of energy. “I have to eat a lot, for sure,” Gras says. “I can burn 700 calories an hour, and with all the stress you put on your body when biking and working long hours, you have to make up for that. When I eat it’s pretty fast, something small, but enough to hold me over for a few hours.”
    In between a larger, balanced breakfast and dinner, Gras fuels up during the day on mini-meals with a mix of carbohydrates for energy and protein for muscle regeneration, “but not a lot of fat,” he says. “For sure I need a lot of carbohydrates, so it can be a potato or potato and egg or pasta and vegetable, maybe chicken breast or chicken sausage, and some fruit, too.”
    It’s almost ironic how simply Gras eats daily and how beautifully complex what he creates at L2O is. “My private life and my work I keep completely separate,” he says. At the same time, though, it’s not like the food at L2O is unhealthy. “All the food here, it’s not very rich, but still flavorful. We use technique to bring smoothness and richness to the food rather than cream and butter.”
    Chicagoans may remember reading about Gras last year, when he was seriously injured in a bike accident. During Labor Day weekend last year, Gras was broadsided by a car running a red light. “I was projected onto the windshield and thrown to the ground,” he says. “It was pretty scary…I fell pretty hard.” After suffering from several broken ribs, a pelvic injury and a collapsed lung, Gras was bedridden at the hospital in serious condition for several weeks. The total recovery took about six months. “I went back into shape not too long ago, maybe just a couple months ago,” he says, almost a year after the accident.
    Gras says his team at the restaurant really took the helm in his absence. On his return, he started with a light schedule, which he slowly increased for six weeks until he was back full-time. The determined, resilient Gras even got back on his bike as soon as he could, just five weeks after the accident. He started slow, riding for just an hour and then increasing as he could. “When you’re already active you heal faster,” he says. “But I noticed my legs weren’t as strong, and I realized how powerful my legs were before.”
    That was measured by his previous ability to power through higher gears at fast speeds. Now, he has increased his cadence, or cycle rotation, pedaling faster, but on a lower gear to try and achieve the same speed. “I’ve had to change my training a bit, too,” he says. Once a rider among a group of 25, he’s been riding with just one person and is more careful, looking closely at every car as he bikes.
    It’s like the motto: fall of the horse, get back on. Fall off the bike, do the same. Gras’ ability to recover from a major accident not only has helped him power through challenges on the bike, but also in the kitchen.  

The Surfer
    Though Shaw Lash grew up in Austin, Texas, her other “home” has always been Mexico. Her love affair with the region began as a child, reading about Mexican cuisine and cooking out of cookbooks by Diana Kennedy, considered the abuelita, or grandmother, of authentic Mexican cuisine in the United States, and Rick Bayless, now her mentor and boss at XOCO, where she heads up the kitchen as executive chef. After graduating from the University of Texas in Austin, her travels took her to Brazil, Peru, northern California, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Mexico, where she fell in love with San Miguel de Allende. She stayed there, running a personal chef and catering business called The Dinner Goddess, while contributing food articles to local publications.
    It was in Brazil and Peru in 2005 that Lash discovered another one of her passions: surfing. “I never wanted to leave the ocean,” she says. “At that point, I committed to traveling as much as possible, when I could.” After returning from South America, she spent the winter in Lake Tahoe snowboarding as a way to hone her surfing skills. Then, for the following summer surf season, she jetted back, this time to Central America.
    “I bought my own board and stayed as close to the ocean as possible,” she says. Her goods: a 9-foot longboard for high waves and a 7-foot x 8-inch one for agile moves. “Boards are pieces of art unto themselves,” she says. From colorful patterns and hand-painted designs, many artists use surfboards as their canvas.
    In Mexico, finding the time to surf was a bit challenging for the busy Lash. “I would have loved the breaks in Oaxaca and near Sayulita,” she says. “The warm-water waves of Mexico hold a special place in my heart.”   
    Sadly, Chicago isn’t particular known for its surfing, although some brave souls bear wetsuits and head to the South Side during the fall and colder months, when waves in Michigan can reach up to six feet and higher. Instead, Lash plans to take trips back to Mexico. In the meantime, she’s picked up another sport: triathlons.
    That happened when, after being recruited by Bayless to come to Chicago and work at Frontera Grill, Lash figured she needed to do something else to keep fit in a non-surfing state. Being a surfer, Lash was also an avid swimmer and has always enjoyed biking, riding to and from Frontera each day when she cooked on the line there and ran part of the business operations. She decided to take the activity a step further and train for a triathlon. Sprint-distance triathlons combine a half-mile swim, 13.6-mile bike ride and three-mile run. The Olympic distance challenges participants to a one-mile swim, 25-mile bike ride and six-mile run.
    In the summer, Chicago’s Lake Michigan makes for great swimming. Ohio Street beach gets packed with wetsuit-bearing, swim capped men and women looking to brave the sometimes cold waters of the Lake. By July, though, waters can reach more comfortable temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees and up to 72 degrees by August. A strong swimmer, Lash takes long swims in these waters, up to a mile.
    “I grew up near a lake in Texas and was always addicted to the water, of all kinds,” she says. No wonder surfing became a quick passion.
    When on land, aside from biking, Shaw also does a lot of yoga, something she’s gotten into thanks to Bayless’ passion for the activity. These activities—biking, running, swimming and yoga— prepare a chef for the skills needed to work on a hot line, promoting extreme mental focus, physical strength, endurance, precision and balance. Gras and Shaw are in this sense true athletes—showing more than just a dedication to their sports, but also to their health, despite the unfortunate motto that “skinny chefs” can’t be trusted and the false stereotype that chefs and kitchen workers do nothing but work, eat, smoke, drink and party. While some cooks choose to take the edge off in less-than-healthy ways, Gras, Shaw and many of their culinary peers in Chicago have shown that exercise can achieve the same effect, more effectively. And, it only sharpens those athletic skills required in their first passion: cooking.

Published: October 12, 2009
Issue: November 2009 Sports Issue


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john, Oct-19-2010