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Chef of Steel 

A food writer learns to like pumping iron - when it's cast-iron cookware

Published January 19, 2010 at 5:35 p.m.


I’m in my kitchen, bare feet planted on a grippy blue yoga mat, grasping a can of coconut milk in each hand. With my arms and knees bent and the shiny can tops pointed at the ceiling, I begin doing a set of “tricep kickbacks.” “Keep your cheeks tight,” instructs personal trainer Jackie Decarreau, 27. “I don’t mean the ones you smile with.”

After completing a series of upper-arm and shoulder exercises, I pick up a nearly full container of Sapling Vermont Maple Liqueur to use for “wrist twists.” The amber liquid sloshes and froths appealingly as I rotate the bottle. I finish the routine with an ab workout using an orange enameled cast-iron Le Creuset sauté pan as a weight: Sitting with knees bent and feet crossed, I lean back and, holding the pan in both hands, move it from my right side to my left. Decarreau counts my reps, gives me tips on form, and encourages me when my muscles start getting shaky.

As I do a post-exercise stretch, the trim blonde fills a piece of notebook paper with the steps in the kitchen circuit workout she’s devised. When she’s done, she heads back to the Woolen Mill Health Club in Winooski, where she’s the general manager. My job is to do the drill three times before I meet with her again next week.

Like pretty much everybody I know, each January I resolve to exercise more, eat smaller portions and fit into those jeans that don’t quite button the way they used to (’cause they shrank in the dryer, of course). And, like pretty much everybody I know, when the next December rolls around, things haven’t changed as much as I would have liked.

One year I resolved to walk up and down the stairs in my old apartment for 30 minutes per day, but I got bored. Squeaky planks and concerns about bugging the neighbors with my workout music didn’t help. As an introvert, I quail at the gym scene, and I really prefer my own shower. A weak knee means that running is out of the question.

The idea for an exercise routine using cooking equipment and ingredients came to me on Christmas night, as I kneaded a batch of stiff pasta dough for ravioli filled with a lush chestnut, mascarpone and white-truffle-oil mixture. The recipe, from The French Laundry Cookbook, insisted that the dough be worked for 15 minutes, if not longer. “Even if you think you are finished kneading, knead it for an extra ten minutes; you cannot overknead this dough,” cautions the author.

Just 10 minutes in, my forearms were feeling the burn. Even after 15, the eggy yellow mass hadn’t yet achieved the proper elasticity, and so I kept at it till it did. Joking that I’d be sore the next morning, I asked my family to help me brainstorm other cooking tasks that require an athletic level of effort: whipping egg whites into meringue, shaking cream until it breaks into butter and buttermilk, grating pounds of beets, rutabaga and carrots for borscht or slaw. In short, most things that we’ve got Cuisinarts and KitchenAids to do for us.

Sure, trying to get fit while making cookies or a hearty Russian soup — enriched with beef and topped with a generous dollop of sour cream — seems sort of silly and counterintuitive. But somehow the idea of using my kitchen as a gym did not.

For one thing, nearly every article on getting fit suggests finding ways to work up a sweat that you enjoy, and there’s little I enjoy more than handling and preparing food. What if, rather than simply striving to take a walk three times a week, I made a point of walking to get my groceries — and carrying them home in a backpack — while my car stayed put? If I could find a way to do some supplemental strength training at home, using my cherished collection of cookware and items from my cupboards as weights, I might have a solution to the workout dilemma.

That’s where Decarreau comes in. Recommended by an enthusiastic client, she overcame a touch of initial trepidation and agreed to work outside her element — and in mine. In the first few minutes of her visit we examine my collection of pantry staples, my hanging pot rack and my work surfaces.

Pulling a cushioned chair away from my dining-room table, she notes that it will be perfect for squats. Bending my knees until my butt just touches the surface is a way to ensure that I don’t tweak my bum knee. I can do modified push-ups with my palms pressed against the metal counter by the sink. The cans of organic coconut milk, a couple years out of date, are the perfect mock dumbbells.

Two days after my date with Decarreau, I do the workout solo for the first time. I’ve forgotten the proper technique for the triceps bit, but I muddle through. I find myself wanting to add weight to some exercises — it’s a piece of (coconut) cake to lift the tin cans above my head during the shoulder-press segment — but I feel a nice heat radiating in my arms when I complete a four-part “shoulder circuit.” Worried that my abs aren’t getting enough of a workout, I throw in some crunches for good measure. Their name sounds food related, anyway.

By our second appointment, I’m ready to ask Decarreau for a few supplementary exercises that don’t really have much to do with food. She instructs me on how to know when to add more repetitions, more weight and more sets to my workout: Basically, when doing a movement 15 times is as easy as scrambling an egg, it’s time to up the ante. My plan to make weights from fabric stuffed with dried beans or rice gets the thumbs up. I pay her $70 for the two sessions and am on my own.

My final challenge, aside from continuing to do the circuit workout, is carrying a full load of groceries home on my back. On a warmish morning, I trudge 1.2 miles through the slush to City Market with my blue and tan Crumpler backpack — empty save for my laptop — on my back. At the store I don’t hold back. I buy a heavy glass jar of peanut butter, cans of tuna, bottles of salad dressing and a bulky package of Seventh Generation toilet paper that’s on sale.

At the checkout counter, I realize I’ve been a bit too exuberant. Only a third of what I’ve bought fits in my backpack. Loaded up with a bag in each hand, I finish the trip. Together the bags weigh in at 35 pounds, surely enough to burn a few more calories than walking unencumbered.

It’s been just over a week since my first meeting with Decarreau, so I can’t yet attest to any measurable results. But what I can say is that so far I’ve kind of enjoyed every step of the process, from laying out the culinary materials for my morning workouts to picking up my groceries on foot.

The day after my trip to buy food at the co-op, I park my car at the office and walk to the Burlington Winter Farmers Market, fill up my pack and walk back. As I write this, I can feel the soreness in my pectorals and my hamstrings that signals I’m getting stronger. And I’ve already got plans to make a batch of pasta with hand-churned butter for dinner.

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About The Author

Suzanne Podhaizer

Suzanne Podhaizer

Former contributor Suzanne Podhaizer is an award-winning food writer (and the first Seven Days food editor) as well as a chef, farmer, and food-systems consultant. She has given talks at the Stone Barns Center for Agriculture's "Poultry School" and its flagship "Young Farmers' Conference." She can slaughter a goose, butcher a pig, make ramen from scratch, and cook a scallop perfectly.


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