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City's Top Chefs Put Marathons, Martial Arts, CrossFit on the Menu

 Some of Chicago's best chefs are also the fittest.
Chicago's fit chefs
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WEST LOOP — Chefs and workout regimens typically don't mix, which makes Richie Farina a 5-foot-6, 145-pound, 360-pound-dead-lifting anomaly.

A few mornings a week, when some of his restaurant peers are still sleeping off the previous night's beers, the quiet South Loop resident is at CrossFit SoNo, 1528 N. Halsted St., sweating through the intense workout popular with ex-collegiate athletes, Marines and the like.

From there, it's south on his bicycle (he bikes everywhere) to moto, 945 W. Fulton Market, where Farina is the executive chef. He gets in no later than 10 a.m. — still a good two hours before the other cooks start rolling in.

Janet Fuller chats about the incredibly fit chefs in the popular Randolph Street district:

 Curtis Duffy (l.), chef and owner of Grace, trains three times a week with martial arts expert Jason Chan (r.), also a restaurateur.
Curtis Duffy (l.), chef and owner of Grace, trains three times a week with martial arts expert Jason Chan (r.), also a restaurateur.
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Jason Chan/Facebook

In an industry fueled by fat, booze, stress and general debauchery, the 31-year-old Farina is one of a handful of chefs who stand out and, as it happens, lead some of the city's best kitchens.

Dave Beran, the James Beard Award-winning chef at Next, is training for his sixth marathon. He got home from work at 2:30 a.m. on a recent Saturday, only to scoot out the door six hours later for an eight-mile run. He was back at the restaurant at 11 a.m.

One evening a week, Curtis Duffy steals away from his restaurant Grace (also a Beard winner) so he can make it to his Shidokan class. It's a mix of four martial arts. Duffy returns to Grace during dinner service.

Fitness isn't a newfound interest for these chefs. Beran played college hockey. Duffy boxed in high school. Farina has worked out since he was a teenager.

Stress relief, age and a work culture soaked in excess drive them to maintain such rigorous fitness schedules, they say.

"I've found through my years of working that a lot of chefs turn to substances, whether it be alcohol or something else, as a way to release stress. That's something I've never been interested in," said Farina.

"Everybody says, 'Never trust a skinny chef,' " Duffy said. "I think that's crazy. I want to be around for my daughters when they're older. That's important to me."

Beran, 32, admits getting "fat and lazy" after college and falling into the routine familiar to many a young chef — "work, go to the bar, the bar closes at 4 a.m., sleep, back to work."

At the time, Beran was working at Alinea, Grant Achatz's acclaimed restaurant in Lincoln Park. He realized he couldn't keep going out and do his job well.

"[Alinea] was a really hard place to work. It was so intense that I couldn't handle being hung over walking into work," Beran said.

After running a half-marathon on a bet with his roommates, he ran his first full marathon in 2007.

"My time was terrible," he said. It only made him want to learn how to train — and do better the next time.

This fall, Beran will run his fifth Chicago Marathon and his first New York City Marathon. For the latter, he's running to raise money for the Meals on Wheels charity.

He trains five days a week and bikes, 30 to 50 miles at a time, on the other days. It helps that he lives only a block from Next, so he can (somewhat) sleep in, exercise and then walk down the alley to work.

Duffy, 38, schedules his Shidokan workouts three times a week so it's hard to miss one, even if it means being away from his restaurant during the day.

He takes a private morning lesson and an evening lesson at Chicago Fitness Center in Lakeview, close to his house, and a Saturday afternoon session at Tri-City Boxing and Muay Thai in St. Charles. It's a solid hour ride out to the western suburb on his motorcycle but, "I love it. It's another release for me," he said.

 Moto chef Richie Farina does a bench press during a recent workout at CrossFit SoNo.
Moto chef Richie Farina does a bench press during a recent workout at CrossFit SoNo.
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DNAInfo/Janet Rausa Fuller

His instructor is Jason Chan, who also is a restaurateur. Duffy has long been interested in martial arts — his uncle has a black belt — and asked Chan to train him a few months ago.

(Chan practices what he teaches. In November, he busted out some Shidokan moves on a guy who stole a customer's iPhone at Chan's Lincoln Park restaurant Juno.)

Turns out, practicing mixed martial arts and working in the kitchen require a similar focus and physicality, Duffy said.

"You stance, how you hold yourself," he said. "Every move, every step is even more calculated now, which makes for more efficiency."

Training pays off in other ways. Beran has thought up a few dishes for Alinea's menu while running — squab served on birch logs and a soup made from maple sapling branches, among them.

"The days I work out, I actually I have more energy than the days I skip," Farina said.

Farina's big motivator is his family's history of high cholesterol and heart problems. Last fall, his sister and her partner gave him a pass to CrossFit Sono, where they also work out, as a birthday present.

Neither he nor his sister cuts an imposing figure at first glance but, said his coach, CrossFit owner Zoran Vukic, "They've got this fight in them. You know why they're successful. They come in and attack it."

Farina's goal by the end of the year is to make it to what he calls the Thousand Club. That is, to be able to lift a total of 1,000 pounds between three main moves — the back squat, dead lift and strict press. Currently, he can lift 300 pounds, 360 pounds and 145 pounds, respectively.

"I enjoy seeing how much I can actually do," Farina said, rather self-deprecatingly.

He also is preparing for a Memorial Day workout known in the CrossFit community as the "Murph": a one-mile run, 100 pullups, 200 pushups, 300 air squats and a second mile run, done in one hour or less. It's named after its creator, the late Navy Seal Lt. Michael P. Murphy.

Farina's weakness is his diet, which still leans toward microwaveable, processed and take-out — pretty typical for a chef, ironically. He tries to load up on vegetables at work; the last thing he wants to do when he gets home from work at 2 a.m. is cook.

But, he said, he's working on it.