The World’s Hottest Chef Has An Even Hotter Workout

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Photographs by Lindsay Lauckner-Gundlock

At Noma, we have guests coming from all over the world for a meal, and you want things to go perfectly. It means I work up to 90 hours a week. A few years into this, I started noticing that I was incredibly exhausted. I felt so drained on weekends, I didn’t have the capacity to do anything. Even creative work made me tired — I was tired all the time.

I thought it just came with the territory of being a chef. But then one day I was playing with my daughter, Genta. I was throwing her in the air, and I felt something in my back give — it was like a twitch or a crack. I couldn’t walk for two days. Finally, I went to the doctor. He pressed around a bit, and then he just looked at me and said, “René, you’re out of shape.”

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He was right. I had always worked out when I was younger: I was athletic, I played soccer. But it had been about six years since I’d done anything, and I’d gained 20 to 25 pounds since my mid-twenties. I was up to 180. I wasn’t fat, but I was soft. I looked at these other guys in the industry, people I knew who had heart attacks in their forties or had to go into observation for high blood pressure, and thought, “That could be me. I’m almost 40. Now is when things go downhill.”

That was about three years ago, and it was the start.

Finding the Groove

I wasn’t looking for a beach body, and I wasn’t going to be fanatical about exercise or nutrition. I just wanted to be healthier, to have more energy. I wanted to be able to play with my kids. I started slow: I’d go for a run, huff and puff up a hill, maybe do a few burpees.

Then I ran into an old friend, Thomas Røde Andersen, at a coffee shop in Copenhagen. Thomas had been head chef at Kong Hans Kælder when I was sous-chef there. Back then, he was kind of pear-shaped and slightly overweight. He told me he’d decided to take control of his life, leave cooking, and focus on fitness. When I told him I had started doing a few things, he immediately said, “Let’s work out together.” So I joined him and a few others, and it was exactly what I needed — somebody who knows what he’s doing to make a plan. And it was hard. One day, the leg exercises were so tough, a guy who worked out with us had to shit standing up. It’s not like we were doing anything crazy, but back then, doing 100 squats and 100 lunges and sprinting 50 meters five times was enough to make that happen.

I hated working out, every single moment. It was the time more than anything. I’d wake up, be tired, and then I’d have to use this small window of time off to exercise. It was a huge hurdle, and I didn’t get over it quickly. It was six months before I started to feel OK when I was running, rather than feeling like my heart was going to explode. And it was six months before I stopped dreading the workout. It sounds so dumb to say, because spending six months to make that kind of change — to be better with your team, have more energy for your kids, have more energy in general — is such a small investment. But at the time, it didn’t seem like it. I really had to adopt this positive mentality, tell myself, “This is good for you, good for the family.”

After my youngest daughter, Ro, was born, my wife, Nadine, wanted to get in shape, too. We realized we’d have to be a bit more organized, so we hired a trainer for the whole restaurant, a great guy named Johan Troels Andersen. I guess what we do is considered functional training. There are a lot of pushups and pullups and burpees, and sometimes we do weights or yoga. But Johan mixes it up, and there’s a playfulness to it. Sometimes we “fight” each other by trying to tap the back of each other’s knees, and the loser has to carry the winner piggyback. I think that if you want to stick with exercise, it has to be fun. If you’re just being told to run here, lift this, touch the ground, stand up — it becomes robotic, like chopping onions every day. Putting playfulness into the mix makes it seem less like work. 

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The training took off. More people from the staff started coming, and we added a second session in the afternoon, between lunch and dinner, that we lead ourselves. We even put pullup rings in the office. Sometimes, if there’s a break, guys will start doing sets. When we decided to go to Mexico for a seven-week pop-up for Noma, we wanted to keep up the training. So we brought Johan with us. We worked out six days a week, every morning on the beach, and we’d have as many as 35 or 40 people training. Afterward, we all had breakfast together — fried eggs, avocado, fresh fruit, and homemade sourdough. It definitely made us closer as a team. 

I tell Johan he’s the only person in the world who tells me what to do, and because he’s always changing things, giving us new goals, and keeping it fun, it motivates me. I still wouldn’t say I enjoy working out, but now I only hate it about 25 percent of the time.

A Different, Better Life

I know focusing on my health has made me a better chef. I can’t say that any particular new dish or event is a result of the workouts, but if I zoom out to two years ago and how I would feel at the end of the day, I see a huge change. I didn’t have the same feeling of being ready to attack a challenge, and back then we were just talking about doing a new menu or something like that. Now the tasks are far more daunting — the pop-up in Mexico, opening a new restaurant last summer and another this summer, and of course closing the old Noma and building a new one. We’re changing everything up, but I’m much more confident and comfortable going into it. I feel more creative, like I can think faster, andI have more energy and patience. 

The one thing that hasn’t changed is how I eat. I have bread, love a piece of cake, and the other night I came home and went through an entire bag of chips. But now I eat with a clear conscience. And I’m down to 163 pounds. 

Above all, it’s been better for my family. When my youngest daughter is 10, I’ll be 48. I like knowing I’ll still be able to play with her. 

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