Building Healthy Habits in the Kitchen with Michael Chernow
November 10, 2022
The restaurateur-turned-fitness guru on how to stay healthy in a stressful industry.
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There was a time, in the non-stop life of Michael Chernow, when he would start each work day by packing his clothes in a backpack and jogging from his Brooklyn apartment to one of the fourteen restaurants he owned in New York City. That was part of his workout for the day. Over the next 16 or 18 hours, as he was running errands and putting out fires all over the city, he would make time for more exercise any way he could.
“I would go into the bathroom every hour or so,” Chernow said. “I would take two napkins, put them on the floor and bang out anywhere from 60 to 100 pushups. Around 1,000 pushups a day, just because I couldn’t get to a gym. And that was not because I was like, ‘I want to be in the best shape possible.’ It was because I knew that those were wins for me, outside of work, that I needed to feel better.”
Living better through fitness has long been a core message for Chernow, and these days he’s living it more honestly and powerfully than ever before. More than a decade removed from his splashy New York City debut with The Meatball Shop — followed five years later by the acclaimed seafood concept Seamore’s — the restaurateur-turned-fitness influencer recently launched a superfood and wellness brand called Kreatures of Habit. Chernow spoke to BentoBox about the change he hopes to inspire in people, and is already starting to see in the restaurant industry.
BentoBox: Thanks for making time for us, Michael. Where are we catching you today?
Chernow: Right now I’m at home here in upstate New York. Actually, I just stepped outside for a walk. Anytime I can take a meeting on the move, it's so much better.
You’re not getting enough steps up there?
It’s not like being in the city! You get around by car up here. I go to New York City a couple times a month, and every single day down there I get like 20,000 steps. Up here, I’m behind a desk all day. I have to be intentional to get outside.
You just celebrated the one-year anniversary of your current venture, Kreatures of Habit. How’s that going?
It's going really well, man. It's definitely a big departure from the restaurant business, which was where I spent my whole life before this. Building a brand digitally is a totally different experience.
The mission of Kreatures of Habit is to give people one thing to commit to that could catalyze their decision-making on a daily basis, and we're doing that. The message is getting out there. We’re going to start telling some of the stories of people we’ve connected with, who really just needed something to sink their teeth into, literally and figuratively, to get them moving and making better decisions with their nutrition.
It’s been amazing to build a community of people who really do want to be better. I think my purpose as a human being is to do everything in my power to be the best version of myself, which ultimately helps me help other people. So yeah, it’s been exactly what I hoped for.
What led you to launch a digital brand and leave restaurants behind?
Well, initially I was going to launch Kreatures of Habit as a wellness restaurant, and then use the restaurant as an incubator for a line of consumer packaged goods. That's how I was going to scale the business. Then the pandemic happened. I pivoted and went straight to direct-to-consumer. I can honestly say it was one of the best decisions I've ever made.
The lifestyle I'm living now really lends itself to balance. When I was in the restaurant business, there was very little balance. It was hard to be a great husband and a great father because work was… you know, the doors never shut. It's just a different lifestyle. Now I'm living a life that I talk about in my messaging, as opposed to burning the candle at both ends to the point of, like, absolute exhaustion.
Meatball Shop co-founders Chernow and Daniel Holzman
It’s true that the stress of this industry makes it really hard for people to maintain good routines. How can restaurant workers stay healthy in that environment?
The first step is to care about how important it is. When I was running restaurants, I never sacrificed my physical and nutritional health. I'm not saying it's easy, but you do have to be committed to it.
The key is to build a healthy habit. It starts out as a chore, and chores are never fun. My kids do not want to do the dishes or brush their teeth. But eventually, those chores become habits. Eventually it becomes part of your lifestyle.
You also start to feel better. You start to like it. You know, the more we move our bodies, the better we feel — it just works that way. That's why my mission as a human is to say: What you put into your body and how you move your body will determine how you feel, and how you feel determines how you act.
Check out Michael’s “Top 10 Exercise at Work Hacks” on the Kreatures of Habit blog.
One notoriously unhealthy activity in nearly every restaurant is smoking. Reportedly 30% of restaurant workers smoke cigarettes. Do you have any experience with that?
Oh yeah, I used to smoke at least a pack a day. So I’ll tell you the story: when I was in my early twenties, I had been working in restaurants my whole life and did a lot of partying. Drugs and alcohol are a big part of that world, as you know. One day I realized that if I didn’t stop, I was gonna die. So I made the right decision and got sober. Then I got introduced to fitness and eating healthy, and I latched onto it like crazy. But I was still smoking cigarettes.
I moved out to LA for a bit. I was in great shape, feeling good, and basically replaced my bad habits with healthy ones. One day I went for a run on the beach. Four or five miles, like I did every morning. When I got back in the car, I immediately lit a cigarette. Just then, I caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror, all sweaty. I stopped. What I saw just looked stupid. I said to myself, “Are you seriously doing this right now? Is this how you're finishing your run?” And I got rid of the cigarette. That was the last time I smoked.
To me what that story is about is that we have the power to do anything. It all depends on how much we want it. No matter what you want or where you’re coming from… it might take three years, but if you do X, Y and Z, your goal is totally possible for you. That's how I quit cigarettes. It’s about what you want and who you want to be.
Chernow co-founded seafood concept Seamore’s in 2015.
Let’s talk mental health. Do you think taking care of that is part of the same process as taking care of your body?
My experience is that when you commit to nutrition and physical activity, it really affects your mental health, as opposed to focusing on mental health and trying to use that as the catalyst to making better physical decisions.
And look, the mental toll is a lot in the kitchen. It's a very tough environment. It's hard when you're getting home from work at five o'clock in the morning. But like, do you need to go out after work and get hammered? No. Can you bring some healthy food into work with you so you're not just chewing on, you know, crispy chicken all night long? Yeah. So I think those are the challenges. And it's very, very difficult for the majority of people to commit to those things. But I know it's possible because I've seen it happen over and over again.
You’ve seen restaurant people adopting healthier habits?
Yes, it's definitely something I've seen happen way more over the last ten years in the restaurant business. I know chefs and restaurateurs that are doing it. Like my buddy James Kent from Crown Shy and Saga — he and I went to high school together — he got deep into running and his whole staff runs with him. I ran the marathon with Daniel Humm and Marcus Samuelsson in 2018.
People I was managing in restaurants saw how committed I was to it, and how it made me a very even-keeled leader who wanted everybody to be better, and they started following suit. Lots of people I worked with started doing marathons, and on their days off, they were doing exercise.
There's a lot of people who have taken fitness and nutrition seriously in the restaurant business because of how tough it is mentally, physically and spiritually. But exercise really solves almost everything, I think.
Training for the 2018 New York City Marathon.
Speaking of Daniel Humm, what’s your source of protein these days? Would you ever go vegetarian?
No! I would never do that. I don’t have anything against a vegan diet, but I just love meat. I love clean meat. It's my favorite. I eat a lot of bison. I'm a massive fish guy. I eat meat probably three or four days a week.
As a fellow carnivore, it's a relief to hear that, nutritionally, meat is OK in your book.
Look, health is literally about how you're living your life. It is how you're living your life. That’s what matters. If you're sleeping four to five hours a night, drinking five or six days a week, partying, not prioritizing what you eat, not drinking enough water, you’re going to suffer. Body and mind.
Ever think you’ll head back to that business?
Oh, I absolutely love the restaurant business. Ever since it was the only place that would hire me when I was twelve years old, I am not me without restaurants. And who knows? I'm a real masochist, so I’m sure I’ll end up opening a restaurant again at some point. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, chances are I'd be operating a restaurant right now. But it did, and I made a pivot. I'm pretty stoked about where I’m at. I think it’s something everyone should get to feel.
Follow Michael Chernow on Instagram or visit michaelchernow.com. To learn more about Kreatures of Habit, visit KreaturesOfHabit.com and follow them on Instagram.
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