The Chef In Shape

From "Cheffy-Face" to Ironman: How and Why - Part 1

By Jon Bonnell

"Chef's are supposed to be overweight, right?"

"Can you ever trust a skinny Chef, really?"

"What, you don't eat your own food any more?"

"Are you sick?"

These are just a few of the many questions that have been proposed since I decided to lose weight and get into shape 9 years ago. Back in 2008, I was on top of the world. My culinary career was gaining national traction. I cooked live on The Today Show, made my 3rd appearance at the James Beard House in New York City, Buffalo Bros (my sports bar concept) was really starting to take off, and my daughter was just a year old but was already stealing my heart. Professionally, things could not have been on a faster track, but physically, the industry was beginning to take its toll on my body. I had developed an excruciating case of plantar fasciitis in my feet and my weight was increasing at an alarming rate with no end in sight. It shouldn't have been surprising in any way. I had been eating and drinking like a college kid all the way into my late 30s, never counting a calorie, never really caring about my weight. Up until this point, I had been that naturally skinny guy that everyone loved to hate.

The Today Show in 2008

The Today Show in 2008

My PR agent at the time, who was booking national TV spots and putting out press kits to national print publications as well, called with some very exciting news. "Are you sitting down, Chef?" he asked, sounding like a kid on Christmas Eve. "Gourmet Magazine is doing a feeeeeature on sexy cheeeeeefs, and they want to feature YOOOOOOUUUUU!" he screeched. I had been using a somewhat older photograph in my press kits and let's be honest, the industry in this category has a pretty weak field overall. I thought about turning it down just on principal, but national press is hard to come by, so I reluctantly agreed to do it. I can fast forward to tell you that the magazine went out of business and the feature never happened, but at that time the thought of a photographer coming out to pose me for his idea of a "sexy Chef" feature was truly terrifying. This was the perfect motivation to get into shape and turn things around that I had been searching for. I had 3 months till the photo shoot. The fuse was lit.

There was an exact threshold that blinked on the bathroom scale one morning that really caught my attention. I hadn't exactly reached "obesity" just yet, but I could clearly see the writing on the wall. I began to examine every aspect of my life, including a closer look at my heroes in the industry. In this business, men tend not to age well. The standard sizing chart for our online catalogue (chef coats & pants) has a dropdown menu that goes from small to 7XL! Chefs are expected to die young, overweight, on their 3rd wife and 4th rehab. I wondered just how I'd look and feel in another 10 years and it scared the hell out of me.

Cheffy Face

"Cheffy Face"

I arrived for my first appointment at the gym with an old friend who agreed to give me some pointers. This guy was chiseled and knew everything there was to know about fitness. "Just don't waste my time, Brian. I don't have a lot of time to invest, and I don't want to take any type of drugs or performance enhancers or diet pills", I said. "Not a problem, buddy. I just have a few basic things for your program, then you're on your own. Sounds like you already have the motivation, I just need to give you a plan" he quipped. "Let's just stick to basics here, Jon. Fitness is simple. I want you to get in 20 minutes of big-muscle weight training, then 20 minutes of cardio. That's it. Doesn't matter what kind of cardio, just pick a machine and get your heart rate and breathing rate up for 20 minutes. We're gonna have you doing this 5 days a week."

The first 20 minutes on that freakin' treadmill in 2009 might have been the longest 20 minutes of my entire life. It……..was……..absolutely………horrible!!! I had not so much as jogged in the previous 5 years. The next day was even worse, seeing as how every muscle already hurt before I even started. The diet side of my program was pretty easy for me. I knew what was healthy and I knew how to make anything I wanted, not to mention I had access to every ingredient possible. I just made a conscious decision to get carbs down to less than 20% of total intake and started eating better. But the exercise, damn that was a system-shocker for my flabby body, especially for those first few of weeks. At least I found a pair of arch support insoles that kept my feet from hurting quite so badly. (I'm still running in that same pair today).

The first time I saw a pound drop on the bathroom scale, I was skeptical. Was it real? Was a pound even significant? Then another one dropped, and another. As the weight kept falling, my motivation escalated. I didn't even mind the treadmill so much after a few weeks. If I timed it just right, I could get in a full cycle of ESPN and catch the Top 10 plays. The routine became tolerable and the results were astounding. The only supplement I took was a basic green tea extract, nothing really exotic, just a basic Sam's brand with a few vitamins thrown in. In just 4 months I was down 30 pounds, and I was getting pretty fast on the treadmill. I made a deal with myself that 20 minutes was no longer the goal, but rather 2 miles. The faster I could reach the 2 mile mark, the sooner I could be done and off of that torturous device! Before I knew it, I was running sub-8 minute miles!

"You should run the Turkey Trot with me, Jon" suggested my brother in law. Jeff is a big-time marathoner, like just finished his 10th straight Boston kinda guy. Runners, I've found, are always encouraging towards getting others into the sport. Everyone had noticed that I was getting in shape. 30 pounds in 4 months gets some attention, no matter who you are. The thought of a 5k had never crossed my mind before that. I was just into my gym regimen and it was working, so I never strayed from the routine. "Why not?" I thought. 3.1 miles didn't seem like much of a stretch from my daily 2 mile workout, so I signed up online and put together my best mix of running songs on an ipod playlist.

It was a brisk Thanksgiving morning when 12,000 plus runners lined up on Camp Bowie Blvd, just one block from the house where I grew up. Jeff guided me up to front of the pack luckily, knowing that we were faster than most of the field. I had never been in this kind of atmosphere. Wall to wall runners, each making adjustments to their shoes, their Garmin watches, ipods, or just doing last minute stretches. I was amped up, nervous, scared, excited, all at the same time. When the gun went off, I shot off at a ridiculous pace. Only a half mile in I was sucking wind and dropping back, realizing that I had no idea what I was doing. Jeff was already out of sight around the first corner, top 20 or so in the entire field. I was running the same streets I grew up on, surrounded by literally thousands of people. It was much harder, farther, and more intense than I had anticipated, but I finished in just over 23 minutes and had the time of my life, finishing 11th in the age group (which Jeff won, of course). I was sore for days, but couldn't wait to see the official results online when they were published. I noticed that they gave out "hardware" to the first 3 places in every age group, so naturally I looked to see just how far off I was from the podium. 35-39 year old male, 3rd place just under 20 minutes. That became my next motivation. I wanted hardware. Before I knew it, I had pretty much given up on the gym altogether, signing up for every 5k I could find on the Clines running calendar. Turns out, there's one pretty much every weekend. Before I knew it, I was down 45 pounds from my original embarrassing weight, and I was racking up a little hardware every few races or so. I even put the Cowtown half marathon on the calendar for the next year to see if I could make it that far. A full marathon just seemed waaaaay to far to even consider, but a 13.1 sticker on the truck might look pretty nice.

Editors note: Next month in Part 2 Jon tells us how he got into Triathlons.

Jon Bonnell's bio

Chef Bonnell

Born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, Chef Jon Bonnell grew up hunting, fishing and cooking with his parents and family - his childhood pastimes would soon become his culinary inspirations.

After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 1994, Jon taught science and math for two years before pursuing his love for cooking and enrolling in the New England Culinary Institute (NECI) in Montpelier, Vermont.

During his tenure at NECI, Jon completed a six-month culinary internship at Mr. B's Bistro in the historic New Orleans French Quarter. In 1997, Jon graduated from NECI and returned to Fort Worth where he honed his cooking skills at local, upscale restaurants.

To his list of culinary accomplishments Jon has added the title of Ironman. After beginning a regimen of exercise and diet change in 2008, Jon has gone on to compete in over 165 events from the 5k to the full Ironman in Kona. He will bring us some of the stories from those adventures and his perspective as an active member of the Fort Worth running and tri community.

Jon Bonnell is the Executive Chef and Owner of the Bonnell’s Restaurant Group.