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Restaurant gigs are not for the faint of heart. To help cope with the long hours on their feet in hot kitchens and stressful dining rooms, some food and bev workers—including Michael Chernow, when he was in his 20s—make unhealthy lifestyle choices.
“I’ve always been a pretty extreme guy,” said Chernow, who’s now 37 and co-owns the successful New York City franchise The Meatball Shop and seafood-centric restaurant Seamore’s, in a phone call to Runner’s World. “If I set my mind to something, I’ll do it. And if someone tells me I can’t, I’ll prove them wrong.”
Right now, he’s wrapped up in training for the New York City Marathon this November. But a little more than a decade ago, when the French Culinary Institute-trained chef was climbing the restaurant industry ranks, he was habitually going out drinking and partying after clocking marathon front-of-house and bar shifts.
“I wasn’t making any time to work out or take care of myself, and I knew I couldn’t continue like that,” he said. “So when I turned 23, I decided to start taking my life seriously.”
At that point in 2004, Chernow stopped drinking and staying out late, instead prioritizing exercise, eating healthier, and sleeping more. He began Muay Thai kickboxing, then picked up running as a supplement because it was time-efficient and built strength and stamina.
Growing up in the Big Apple, Chernow entered the restaurant business when he was just 12 and immediately thrived in the fast-paced, demanding environment—but while he was successful, the stress demanded an outlet to blow off steam.
Luckily, running filled that need.
“Restaurants are an incredibly taxing business,” he said. “You work long hours without a lot of sleep, and it’s hard on you mentally and physically. I liked running because I always felt better afterward, no matter how bad of a mood I was in.”
Outdoor running, which Chernow called a “moving meditation,” also allowed him to physically escape his worries. As he upped his runs from one or two times a week to three or four, the long routes through Central Park and intervals on the track provided him precious time to breathe fresh air, far away from dim, cramped bars. Even now, Chernow said, “I’ll run on a treadmill if you held a gun to my head, but only then. I can’t stand running inside.”
A couple years into it, Chernow began training for his first marathon, a 2008 race in the Hamptons. On one of his long runs, he began fantasizing about food—as most do at some point on the grind—and imagined a huge bowl of rigatoni pasta with “ragù sauce, meatballs, and a mound of Parmesan cheese,” he said.
But he couldn’t think of a single place in the city that served hot, made-to-order meatballs on pasta and sandwiches. By the time he finished the run, his idea for The Meatball Shop—which would open its doors in 2010—had already taken root.
“It’s amazing what happens when you put your head to work,” said Chernow, who doesn’t often run with music or podcasts, preferring to use the time to think instead. “I’ve came up with a lot of my best ideas for restaurants and menu items on runs.”
Today, the entrepreneur’s days are busier than ever: He’s overseeing his restaurants; spending time with his wife, model Donna Hemmingsen, and their two young sons; and training for the New York City Marathon, in which he’s leading a running squad of volunteers and staff members from City Harvest, New York’s largest food rescue organization.
On a typical weekday, Chernow wakes up around 5 a.m., goes for an hour-long run or strength-training session at the gym, then returns by 6:30 to have breakfast with his family and take his son to school. He then heads to the restaurants, checking in on his teams and performing marketing duties before clocking out at 9 p.m. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he does a second run after work, getting his mileage up to around 50 per week.
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“I make the time for it,” he said, “Because fitness and movement make me feel grounded and more positive.”
Working with City Harvest has made NYC Marathon training even more special, Chernow said. He began volunteering with the organization—which annually collects 61 million pounds of food donations from farmers and restaurants to feed 1.2 million low-income New Yorkers—a few years ago, and jumped on the opportunity to captain City Harvest’s team this year.
While he won’t be celebrating in his old way after the race on November 4, Chernow might just let himself indulge.
“My postrace go-to is either that rigatoni with meatballs,” he said, “Or a massive bowl of Kraft mac-n-cheese. And I mean massive.”
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