Off the Clock—Matthew Accarrino on Cycling

Thoughts from the chef who probably rides more in a week than you have in like, a year.

April 19, 2016 ● 4 min read

My first desired career was to be a professional cyclist.

In my late teens, I broke my right leg and stopped riding. I lost seven inches in my right leg; I tried to get back to racing, but it’s super competitive. Even if you do it for a living, it doesn’t necessarily pay so well, so I became a chef. Several years ago, I got back on a bicycle, and I was like, Oh my God, this has been missing from my life for a long time. Ever since then, I’ve ridden quite a bit and started racing again — and really well.

I just got back from Belgium and France, where I was riding the same race courses as some of the spring classic races — the Tour Flanders and the Paris-Roubaix. Riding over these incredibly bumpy cobblestone sections where all these guys race and crash. Last summer, I rode the entire route of the U.S. Pro Challenge, which is a seven-day race in Colorado that you’re riding at altitude, which is significantly more challenging. We went up over 12,000 feet twice during that race. I’ve done a lot of pretty amazing stuff on a bike.

People talk about work-life balance. I’m in my mid- to late 30s — you get to that point where you can do more. You learn how to be smarter about what you’re doing. It makes me more creative and more efficient when I’m at work, and enjoy my life more when I’m not there. I try to keep my work weeks to 70 hours, if I’m lucky, and then I train about 15 hours a week. If you’re really fit, your body adapts.

My body is pretty efficient at this point. I don’t use an alarm to wake up. I wake up around six in the morning. If I’m up at 6am and out at 7am, I can ride for three hours, be back at 10am, go to work at 11am, and work until 11pm. I don’t go to the bar. I go home after work. You prioritize things. I’m lucky that I have a great team at the restaurant; they’re super supportive and all ride bikes too, and every once in awhile, let me out of work a little early so I can race the next morning. 

Obviously, it’s become less challenging 
the fitter I get. Believe me, the first time you do it, you go, I’m gonna die. I raced 80 miles on Saturday, 50 miles on Sunday, rode 50-something miles today, and I’ll be back at work tomorrow. It’s normal.

When I’m not doing those 100 other things, I work with a local elite team in the Bay Area. I’m sort of their team chef. I went to their spring training camp to cook for them. I keep in touch with the athletes, I’ll do some stuff out on local races with them. I also work as the team chef for a professional cycling team based out of Greenville, South Carolina. I go out on races with them a couple times a year, cook for them, and then same thing, stay in touch.

Believe it or not, elite cyclists have the same kind of nutrition needs as anyone else — they just need more of it. They’re looking for what a chef like me cooks anyway, which is really fresh food, healthy, natural, organic. Then you use a lot of spices and a lot of things that don’t necessarily add calories to add flavor to it.

A lot of those things led me to think about the reductive technique in the professional kitchen. You use something like a wood oven to add more flavor, and it doesn’t impart a single extra calorie. Or you use great spices, or roast something to deepen its flavor. There are little things that started out as something in the restaurant and ended up as something I’m cooking for athletes, and vice versa. Right now SPQR has a golden beet salad with nasturtiums, and we make these little ginger curry turmeric muffins that go with it — but that’s actually food I make as little cakes and wrap up in foil packets for cyclists to put in their jersey for the race. But that little cake is on that dish that we serve in the restaurant.

There are more similarities between cycling and cooking than there are differences. In the kitchen, you have to be individually excellent, but you have to work as part of a team — that’s exactly how it works in cycling. You have to embrace repetition. You’re going to make an omelet how many times in your career? You always seek to make it better than you did the time before. It’s about as repetitive as climbing the same hill over and over again and trying to go up faster.

Cooking is stressful, and the hospitality business is stressful. Most of it’s a mental game, and the people that win are the ones that have the ability to suffer the most. That’s how competitive cycling works. You’ll rarely see someone smiling as they cross the finish line first — they’re grimacing from the pain that it took them to get there.

Cooking is the same thing. It’s not necessarily physically painful, but it requires you to have a great intensity and level of focus to be able to go in and do the same thing, over and over again, and commit yourself to an excellent outcome, no matter what.

I think we’re all doing it for the same reason. We’re all doing it to be a part of the world around us, to enjoy our lives and to connect with people. All of us are looking for some kind of outlet to help balance our lives and make us complete individuals, in and out of the kitchen. Which makes us better at everything.

As told to Allison Levitsky | Photo courtesy of Matthew Accarrino, the chef of San Francisco's SPQR.