Bonjwing Lee, aka the ulterior epicure, is no stranger to elaborate meals. He spent 2011 living a gourmand's dream, dining and documenting his experiences at the world’s best restaurants. It may come as a surprise that these expansive menus haven’t led to expanding waist lines. Food enthusiast, reviewer, and friend of Greatist Roddy Gibbs interviewed Bonjwing to ask how he manages to balance food, fitness, and the not-so-occasional feast.
What types of exercises/activities do you regularly participate in?
I love to swim. A lap pool, or the ocean on a sunny day is just about the only redeeming thing there is about summer (well, that and watermelon— I HATE summer). Unfortunately, not every day can be a swimming day, so I have to resort to other, agonizing rituals like running. When I can't swim, I run as much as possible, because it's the most efficient exercise I can get.
How long have you been involved in aspects of exercise/fitness?
I came relatively late to the "fitness" program. A nerd by birth, I spent the first decade and a half of my life sitting in a corner reading books. My parents, who were both athletic in their youth, forced me into sports, like soccer and basketball (being Asian, they forced me into piano, violin and the clarinet too). My dad was actually a pretty hot college basketball player in Taiwan, but it was clear fairly early on that I had no mind or coordination for team sports (to be fair, I didn't try very hard).
In high school, I joined the swim team. I wasn't the fastest swimmer, but I loved it, and more importantly, it taught me to enjoy physical exercise. I was also introduced to fencing, and in my Freshman year of college, I walked on the university fencing team as a starter. I fenced for three years on the Northwestern Mens' Foil team, competed at the Junior Olympics, and even medaled at a Big Ten fencing championship one year. By the time I entered law school, I was running six miles every day, six days a week. That was my regular routine. On long runs, I'd go eight or 10 miles, on an especially good day, I might run a half-marathon (I still do, once or twice a year, when I feel so moved).
After law school, everything went downhill. Now, I'll be lucky if I get 10 or 15 miles of running in a week. I'm much happier on the trail than on the treadmill, so when the weather's bad, I exercise less.
Are your fitness endeavors solely a way to balance the eating, or are there other reasons you participate?
No, not solely, though I'd be lying if I denied that my eating habits aren't often my only motivation to exercise. I find that I have more natural energy when I'm in a workout routine. And I like that. I also find that I sleep better (and need less of it) when I exercise. I've never need much sleep (I often go weeks with less than five hours a night). But, when I'm consistently exercising, I’ll pop out of bed at 6 a.m. like toast out of a toaster. It's exhilarating.
So, you obviously work at keeping a healthy balance, but a fast metabolism never hurts. Have you always been on the leaner side?
No. I was a little chubster until around high school, although I already started thinning out in middle school. For my adult life, I've been varying shades of thin, though I did bulk up considerably in college, especially my senior year, when I actively tried to gain weight. I was eating six meals a day (dinner was often two Chipotle burritos) and lifting weights like mad. Even still, I maxed out at 128 lbs., all muscle with less than 5 percent fat. I asked my doctor if I had a hyper thyroid. He told me that I didn't, and that I needed to eat more fat. I told him I was eating a waffle sundae for breakfast and a bowl of ice cream before bed every night. He told me to quit exercising. I quit lifting, although I continued to swim and run. I got so skinny I scared myself, all the muscle having shrunk. So I've been doing my best to gain some of it back, which hasn't been a problem in the past two years, given my eating schedule and recipe testing for "bluestem, the cookbook."
Would you say you have a larger than average appetite? If yes, has it always been this way?
Photo by Bonjwing Lee
Probably. I seem to eat more than everyone else around me. Although, I will note that, when I'm not traveling, I only eat when I'm hungry, which is often once a day, and it usually involves a handful (or two) of nuts, and some salad and fruit. I'll usually fast one day out of the week too. Sometimes, I wonder if I'm a camel, storing up energy on my gluttonous runs, and living off the fat in the days and weeks in between. I'm sure some doctors and nutritionists would tell you that I have awful eating habits. So far, I've been in pretty great health (thank God). I can only pray that it continues.
Do you always finish your plate?
Only if the food is good. I hate to see good food go to waste.
Is there anything you won't eat?
Probably, but I haven't encountered it yet. I will note that I rarely eat on planes— not only is the food usually horrible, but I hate eating in those cramped conditions. I imagine that's how commodity farm animals feel. If I were a commodity farm animal, I'd probably starve myself to death.
You've mentioned elsewhere that you're not a big sweets guy, are there any foods that you do have trouble saying "no" to?
I do generally prefer salty foods to sweet ones, although there are a few sweets that I have a hard time resisting. Ice cream is my Kryptonite. Set a bowl of ice cream in front of me, and I have to actively exercise control. Otherwise, there are plenty of foods I have a problem refusing. Cheese is definitely one of them (if I could make one thing calorie-free, it'd be dairy). Good bread and butter are very rare, but when I find them, they can't escape my mouth. I love crispy things, especially if they're salty. Actually, I have a hard time refusing good food in general— if it's really that good, I'm eating it.
Guilty pleasures that we might not expect from someone who has dined at the world's finest?
Photo by Bonjwing Lee
I always think this is a funny question— do people think that dining in fancy restaurants erases childhood memories and a taste for the common? If anything, childhood memories and having a taste for the common is exactly why fancy restaurants are so exciting these days. I hadn't drank pop/soda since high school. But earlier this year, Michael Carlson served me a dessert at Schwa, in Chicago, based on Dr. Pepper. I had forgotten how much I love it. Otherwise— goopy, fake, and dyed nacho cheese: I love it. Is that scandalous enough for you?
As varied as they may be, can you give us a typical day before a larger tasting? Do you eat anything? Exercise?
Seriously, I don't think about it that much. If I can fit in a run the day of a large meal, great. I only plan one meal a day, and I'll rarely eat anything else before or after it (usually because I'm still digesting whatever big meal I've had the day before). When I travel, I'm usually pretty active. I love photography, and that gets me up and about. Often, I'm up on my feet all day from morning until I sit down for dinner. And I love walking, so, if I'm in a city that's walkable, I try to do that as much as possible.
You've had so many memorable meals and compile a yearly "best dishes" list. Do you have any particularly memorable fitness-related endeavors?
Not really. I exercise mostly out of discipline and a bid for self-preservation. The only physical endeavor that I'll never forget is when my friend Jeff and I went hiking up the Matterhorn, a two day trek above the glacial line (I wrote about it here). We were college students at the time, so we probably thought we were invincible. We never planned on summiting, but we did spend a night at the base camp with a bunch of world-class climbers who did. However, due to a freak ice storm that set in overnight, we were forced to retreat down the mountain the next day. So, without any climbing or winter gear we descended the mountain with a chain-smoking Dutchman, who said he had been up and down that mountain dozens of times. Not only was that the scariest day of my life, but probably the most physically demanding.
You recently worked on Bluestem, the Cookbook with chefs Colby and Megan Garrelts. There is a mix of both lighter and heavier seasonal recipes, but all seem to be focused around quality, nutritious ingredients. Is this in tune with your own food philosophy?
Absolutely. In our world, it's a nearly unreachable ideal, but I strive to eat as well as possible.
Do you have any other general nutrition guidelines that you try to adhere to?
Maybe I was born lucky; because I love all of the things that nutritionists say are good for you. Fruits and vegetables comprise probably 90 percent of my diet at home; the rest being mostly nuts and cheese. I naturally gravitate towards a high-fiber diet, without even thinking about it.
I will also note that I don't drink— I have that Asian defect (or is it a blessing?) that prevents my body from metabolizing alcohol. I also don't drink caffeine, and try to minimize my intake of carbonated drinks (I don't drink soda).
The most important guideline I follow is eating well— be it vegetable, meat, or fat. By that, I mean to eat the most high quality product that you can afford. Eat seasonally, naturally, and as locally as possible. And, of course, taking everything in moderation— including moderation, itself— is key.
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