From boxing to pilates to yoga, Chicago chefs make physical, mental health a priority

While many chefs know they need to take better care of themselves, finding the time and energy to do so after a long shift on their feet can be challenging. But that’s slowly changing.

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Chicago Chef Jonathon Sawyer, of Kindling | Downtown Cookout & Cocktails, does yoga in the Skydeck of the Willis Tower before the space opens for guests.

Chef Jonathon Sawyer of Kindling|Downtown Cookout & Cocktails does yoga in the Skydeck of the Willis Tower before the space opens for guests.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant or even watched an episode of “The Bear,” you know the physical and mental demands of the hospitality industry are real, especially for those working in the kitchen. Add in easy access to food and alcohol and it can be a recipe for disaster.

While many chefs know they need to take better care of themselves, finding the time and energy to do so after a long shift on their feet is challenging. But that’s slowly changing.

Spend time following your favorite chefs on Instagram and you’ll notice a shift, whether it’s posting about their sobriety, weight loss or exercise routines.

Here, six Chicago chefs talk about the ways they are making their mental and physical health a priority.

Tony Priolo

Tony Priolo, chef of Piccolo Sogno, poses for a portrait following a workout at Body Fit Training Park Ridge in Park Ridge, Ill. on Wednesday, June 19, 2024. | Trent Sprague/For the Sun-Times

Tony Priolo, chef of Piccolo Sogno, attends a workout at Body Fit Training Park Ridge in Park Ridge.

Trent Sprague/For the Sun-Times

Executive Chef/Co-owner, Piccolo Sogno, (464 N. Halsted St.; piccolosognorestaurant.com

Fitness favorite: Body Fit Training (BFT)

When Priolo enters River North’s Piccolo Sogno, he always grabs a slice of still-warm focaccia. Having just finished a 50-minute high-intensity workout that includes 12 stations — think skiing machine, treadmill, bicycle, jumping rope — he’s earned it.

Back in August 2021, Priolo had a mini stroke caused by high cholesterol that jump-started his fitness routine.

“It was a wake-up call,” he says that happened a week after his business partner had a stroke (he’s fine now).

Tony Priolo, chef of Piccolo Sogno, lifts a barbell during a workout class at Body Fit Training Park Ridge in Park Ridge, Ill. on Wednesday, June 19, 2024. | Trent Sprague/For the Sun-Times

Tony Priolo, chef of Piccolo Sogno, lifts a barbell during a workout class at Body Fit Training Park Ridge in Park Ridge.

Trent Sprague/For the Sun-Times

After a few years of morning workouts in his basement, he got bored. So, when he saw a BFT studio was opening nearby, he was intrigued with its group classes led by a team of trainers.

After one class, followed by four days of soreness, Priolo was hooked. Or as he puts it, “BFT changed my mental and physical well-being and my life.”

But he didn’t stop there. In addition to the five weekly workouts, he recently started seeing a life coach on the encouragement of his wife.

Tony Priolo, chef of Piccolo Sogno, lifts dumbbells during a workout class at Body Fit Training Park Ridge in Park Ridge, Ill. on Wednesday, June 19, 2024. | Trent Sprague/For the Sun-Times

Tony Priolo, chef of Piccolo Sogno, lifts kettlebell weights during a workout class at Body Fit Training Park Ridge.

Trent Sprague/For the Sun-Times

“In the end, if you don’t take care of yourself, how can you be there for your family, employees or community?”

He’s changed his diet too, cutting way back on meat and butter, while adding in more fish and vegetables. His daily pasta habit, however, remains.

“You have to satisfy your soul too,” says Priolo.

Sarah Mispagel-Lustbader

Sarah Mispagel, chef and owner of Loaf Lounge, smiles near North Avenue Beach, Friday, June 21, 2024. Mispagel, a marathon runner, said she usually runs about five to six miles to stay fit. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Sarah Mispagel, chef and owner of Loaf Lounge, says she usually runs about five to six miles to stay fit.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Pastry Chef/Co-owner, Loaf Lounge, 934 N. Milwaukee Ave.; loafloungechicago.com

Fitness favorite: Long-distance running, strength training

Dealing with loss can take many forms. For Mispagel-Lustbader, it meant lacing up her running shoes.

“My mom passed in 2011 and she was a passionate runner,” says Mispagel-Lustbader. “I started running a little bit after as a way to still feel a connection with her.”

Four marathons and three halves later, including one recently in Chicago, she’s still going strong.

Sarah Mispagel, chef and owner of Loaf Lounge, poses while running along the lake front near North Avenue Beach, Friday, June 21, 2024. Mispagel, a marathon runner, said she usually runs about five to six miles to stay fit. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Chef Sarah Mispagel, owner of Loaf Lounge, runs along the lakefront. A marathon runner, said she usually runs about five to six miles to stay fit.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Back when she worked at Sepia and Proxi, Mispagel-Lustbader would get up early and run to work from her home in Bucktown, detouring to add in extra miles. Now as owner of Loaf Lounge with her husband, Ben, she’s switched her running to after work. The two run together using each other and food as motivation.

“For our longer runs, we pick a restaurant and finish our runs there,” she says, adding that knowing a margarita is just a few miles away helps.

“I dove into running to feel connection with my mom and I wanted to keep up with it because it made me feel like I was doing something just for myself, especially now with owning a restaurant,” she says.

Sarah Mispagel, chef and owner of Loaf Lounge, poses while running along the lake front near North Avenue Beach, Friday, June 21, 2024. Mispagel, a marathon runner, said she usually runs about five to six miles to stay fit. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Sarah Mispagel, chef and owner of Loaf Lounge, enjoys one of her usual lakefront runs earlier this month.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Recently, Mispagel-Lustbader started seeing personal trainer Hannah Ferris once a week, which has been a huge game changer.

“She’s changed my life,” she says. Strength training and counting macros (more protein, less carbs and fat) are all part of her routine now.

David Posey

Chef David Posey is photographed at the Highland Park Golf Center on June 24, 2024.

In addition to golfing two times a week, Chef David Posey of Elske restaurant works out with a personal trainer three times a week.

Courtesy David Posey

Executive Chef/Co-owner, Elske, 1350 W. Randolph St.; elskerestaurant.com

Fitness favorite: Golf

As a teenager, Posey often played golf with his dad and brother. But when he went to culinary school, he stopped.

A few years back, when Posey and his wife, Anna (she handles the sweet stuff at the restaurant), were opening the West Loop eatery, he picked it up again, sometimes golfing with fellow chefs.

“The basic thing of golf is no matter what you’re out in nature,” he says. “That always does good things to the mind.” Then there’s how golfing relates to being a chef when it comes to keeping a calm and steady mind when things inevitably go wrong.

“Strategically, it’s very much like running a kitchen,” he adds.

In addition to golfing two times a week, Posey works out with a personal trainer three times a week at Northbrook’s APX, which has helped make him more levelheaded. A move to Highland Park (the couple used to live above Elske) acted as a catalyst for some major life changes, including switching to intermittent fasting after dabbling in other eating styles. He’s since lost 45 pounds.

“I went from thinking relaxing after a busy service was having a beer with the cooks to now it’s me getting a good night’s sleep and waking up early and going for a workout,” says Posey. “I hardly ever drink anymore.”

Mindy Segal

Owner, Mindy’s Bakery, 1623 N Milwaukee Ave.; mindysbakery.com

Fitness favorite: Pilates and yoga

Chef Mindy Segal

Chef Mindy Segal turns to pilates to keep physically fit.

Cresco Labs

A few years back, Mindy Segal went from being in “the best shape of my life” to “almost being paralyzed.” With some hindsight, she admits the daily Soul Cycle classes weren’t the best thing for her neck and lower back issues.

Once Segal started feeling better, she had an epiphany.

“I said to myself, you can be like this for the rest of your life, or you can push yourself and get back in the game,” she says.

She started walking, adding in private Pilates classes not too long after.

“The Pilates has been helping me so much because it makes you very aware of your core,” she says. Having a roommate who’s a yoga instructor doesn’t hurt either. “Everything I do in conjunction with each other helps.”

She changed her diet too, which took a hit during the pandemic. “I ate and drank my feelings,” she says.

These days, she’s careful about what she puts in her body, meaning no processed food and alcohol rarely.

Unlike the rest of us, being around delicious baked goods doesn’t tempt her.

“I’ve been surrounded by it for 40 years, so do you think I’m into it anymore?” she says.

Her bakery’s savory pastries, however, are harder to resist.

The importance of mental health isn’t lost on Segal, either.

“Happy people live longer,” she says.

Cory Morris

Chef Cory Smith poses for a photo prior to a training session at Mayweather Boxing + Fitness at 219 W Hubbard St in River North, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chef Cory Smith arrives for a training session at Mayweather Boxing + Fitness in River North.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Executive Chef, Meals on Wheels Chicago, 314 W. Superior St., #201; mealsonwheelschicago.org

Fitness Favorites: Boxing, indoor climbing and running

As someone who’s made exercise a priority in his life for a long time, Cory Morris has some thoughts as to how it relates to being a chef.

“Boxing is like a busy service where you’re constantly moving and needing to make quick decisions,” he says.

“Rock climbing has more of a methodical approach, so it’s about problem solving and correlates with menu planning. Running is just like prep as it’s a lot of repetitive movements, but you also need to be precise.”

Chef Cory Smith punches the bag during a training session at Mayweather Boxing + Fitness at 219 W Hubbard St in River North, Tuesday, June 18, 2024. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chef Cory Smith punches the bag during a training session at Mayweather Boxing + Fitness.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Three days a week, you’ll find him at a 6 a.m. high-intensity boxing-oriented circuit class at Mayweather Boxing Gym. He sometimes takes a second class right after. “It actually gives me more energy for the day,” he says.

Periodically, you’ll find him at Brooklyn Boulders doing indoor climbing, which he first began doing in 2015. Running is his newest endeavor and perhaps his most challenging. “I’ve always been a terrible runner and I recently found out it’s because I was running on the tips of my toes,” he says.

His diet has been a focus these last few years, including eating a healthy breakfast. To ensure he doesn’t press the snooze button, he’s got some of his cooks interested in the boxing classes too.

“I’m not going to leave them hanging,” he says.

Jonathon Sawyer

Chef Jonathon Sawyer, of Kindling | Downtown Cookout & Cocktails, smiles after doing yoga in the Skydeck of the Willis Tower before the space opens for guests, Friday, June 21, 2024. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chef Jonathon Sawyer of Kindling | Downtown Cookout & Cocktails, is all smiles after finishing his yoga workout.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chef/Partner, Kindling|Downtown Cookout & Cocktails, 202 S. Franklin St.; kindlingchicago.com

Fitness Favorites: Yoga and meditation

To say these last few years have been transformative for Sawyer is an understatement.

“I’ve always been a big fan of evolution, but I’ve stepped it up to an entirely different level that includes two years of sobriety,” he says.

Incorporating mind, body and spirit, Sawyer began seeing two therapists: one for himself and one for his marriage of 19 years. He added meditation and prayer.

“I knew I needed to change, and I came out all the better and continue to get better for it,” he says. “You can’t fix one part without the other two.”

Exercise, however, took a little longer.

“I resisted anything that made me feel better as I didn’t think I deserved it,” he says. “For the exercise piece, I allowed myself to heal mentally and biochemically first.”

Chef Jonathon Sawyer, of Kindling | Downtown Cookout & Cocktails, does yoga in the Skydeck of the Willis Tower before the space opens for guests, Friday, June 21, 2024. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chef Jonathon Sawyer practices yoga religiously to help maintain physical and mental health.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Over time, walking turned to jogging and then bike riding. These days, he focuses on hot yoga, which he does five days a week. Typically, Sawyer will add in 15 minutes of meditation before yoga and add in a prayer as well. Over the last 13 months, he’s lost 77 pounds.

For Sawyer, holding himself accountable by tracking on his phone “every single kind of exercise and every bit of food” is important, especially in the kitchen where small bites of food can add up quickly. He weighs himself at least once a day. Due to a mild allergy, he limits his intake of gluten.

“A big part of who I am now is being patient and allowing team members to make the little mistakes, which help them learn in a way that I was never allowed to — or never allowed myself to — to become better chefs,” he says.

Chef Jonathon Sawyer, of Kindling | Downtown Cookout & Cocktails, does yoga in the Skydeck of the Willis Tower before the space opens for guests, Friday, June 21, 2024. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

For a Sun-Times photo session, Chef Jonathon Sawyer stretches during a recent yoga workout in the Skydeck of the Willis Tower.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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