Chef Joshua Lewin gets in the ring.
November 14, 2016
I open my eyes and lean gently over the railing.
Forty feet directly below me, there’s a stage with a boxing ring. A man in a tuxedo is standing alone in the center of it, shuffling through flash cards. He looks nervous. I wonder how I look: alone, hanging over this railing like a hawk, the tattoos everyone discouraged me from getting when I was 18 on full display, with shoes that feel strange on my feet.
Earlier in the year, I was invited to compete in Haymakers for Hope, an event that pits two amateur boxers against one another in the name of cancer research. The six months prior — while closing one pop-up restaurant and the planning of a permanent one — had already been devoted to wrestling back some control over my personal health, paying back the physical and mental price my career had already cost me. The training would be full of parallels to my life in kitchens: fatigue, sweating, soreness, minor injuries, not-so-minor injuries. But also: the potential for glory I’ve been chasing my entire life.
I grew up idolizing boxers, especially Olympic boxers. The blue and red blur of the gloves and the sounds of the fight, even on television, could always capture my attention as two athletes strove so publicly and sacrificed so much for something that so few would ever know. I looked for that glory as a member of my high school’s wrestling program; I looked for it in the United States Marine Corps. I continue to seek it in the kitchen. I relentlessly attach myself to traditions of sacrifice, but training to fight from scratch in front of two thousand spectators would be like a restaurant career consolidated and distilled into all of its most difficult parts, stacked one on top of the other while a man punches you repeatedly in the eye.
I said yes immediately.
My training officially began just as I opened my first brick-and-mortar restaurant — the most important milestone I may ever pass in my career. No matter what came next, this was the year my partner Katrina and I made the transition from employees to entrepreneurs, and with that, from safe and salaried to facing the risks all on our own. Even without institutional investment backing or a splashy management company behind us, our new venture — Juliet — finally had roots.
This is why, on the day I met my trainer Kin, I didn’t have a care in the world aside from wondering how the new restaurant would survive the hour without me. I was working 16 hours a day and feeling alright! Sure, Kin was banging me around the head a little bit, but it didn’t hurt, and I had bigger things on my mind.
He told me to react naturally as he threw out a punch, and I tried my best to remember my teenage boxing classes as I slipped to the side, catching it on the ear. He threw out a jab. It brushed my chin.
The next one would come from my right, he warned me. His left hook caught me lazily but squarely under the eye, and he laughed.
“Let’s see what you can do the other way. Throw your jab.”
My glove met his open hand with a satisfying slap. Kin, already a good mentor who knew the power of small and early victories, had obviously set me up for success with this one.
“And a straight right hand.”
My hand sailed out courageously and met air three inches to the left of Kin’s head. He hadn’t moved, but he smiled. "This is going to be a difficult challenge for you. Try again."
I would soon come to learn that Kin wasn’t hitting me very hard that first day.
There is a distinct musical quality to fight training. There’s the slap slap slap, thud of a leather glove against the heavy bag, the sharp exhale of the boxer. It’s tight, methodical, and not unlike the music you might hear in a professional kitchen; where cooks in neat three-piece uniforms line up empty plates in deliberate rows, then brush them with carefully prepared sauces and build them high with fresh vegetables and fish and meat. Heels of knives tap out a whispered rhythm, and with a scraping crescendo, a symphony of clinks deposits the work into a metal bowl.
That is not the kind of kitchen where I started. The beginning of my culinary story was scored by leaky cases of meat thrown into corners, streaking pink stains across the floors of walk-in refrigerators, and the clanging of searing-hot porcelain ramekins full of old fish and Ritz cracker topping floating above a high-decibel baseline of early Eminem, followed by late Metallica. No matter how impressive the cover counts, or the thick bravado of the former high school football star who barked out orders and profanities, there was nothing musical about that place.
You know a fight is good when it gets that song right, just like in a kitchen. When it moves to the beat you find in the type of kitchen I’m trying to build now, there’s a steady beat beneath the surface that champions the people here, instead of just the work they produce. I want to see our name in lights, but not if it leaves us flat on our backs.
Kin and I eventually learned who my opponent would be: a guy named Antonio, already committed to his training in a way I would never have time to be, a southpaw, with a good team behind him. They were probably expecting to win; the organizers were probably expecting that, too. I swore I wouldn’t make it easy for him.
Three weeks in, I stood face-to-face with another amateur and we each tried to make some of our training come to life in my first effort at sparring. After thirty seconds, I couldn’t lift my arms high enough to cover my face, resulting in my first of two near-broken noses. From the opposite corner, I hear Kin plead for a longer break before the next round. From Wahaset, the head boxing trainer: “Take the week to rest. He’s done for today.”
With a resounding snap, I was thrown back to the beginning of my career, desperately trying to catch up. For two weeks after that first sparring match, Wahaset’s words played on repeat in my head and I strongly considered backing out. Everyone would understand if you quit. Nobody should do something like this while they open a restaurant, a small voice in my head whispered.
It’s the same voice that told me — when I had to confront a line cook as a sous chef for the first time — that I was useless, that I didn’t deserve my small salary, that I should forget about making a career out of this cooking thing. It’s the same one that told me I didn’t have the education or the experience of my peers, that assures me I’m way out of my league.
But the truth is, I’ve never accomplished anything worth doing without first fighting past the lure of quitting. So I stayed.
Through Kin’s constant shouting from outside the ropes during my lunchtime sparring (for which my goal was to return to the restaurant with my face intact), my confidence hardened. I learned that it’s okay to go backward, or sideways — as long as there is the intention to move forward again soon. I learned that taking a few clean, legal punches won’t kill you, and those lessons went back with me each day to my new little restaurant. I kept stepping away from the line, and my staff kept us moving forward; I’d return and we’d achieve daily milestones weeks, months ahead of the plan.
Boxing, as bracing as it was, became a refuge from the tumult of our restaurant opening. Day one at Juliet, I took three tickets from the order printer and each one hit harder than the right hooks from Brian, my new southpaw training partner. I barely recognized the words I saw on the first ticket, though I was responsible for each one of them. The second ticket printed and I froze, doing my best to look confident in my open kitchen. I couldn’t remember where to find any of the ingredients. Privately, I was certain I had made some very big mistakes.
But by week seven, I started punching Kin back. By week nine, we became friends. By week ten, I was with him at least four days a week, making the trip to the gym from the restaurant between breakfast and lunch service and again between lunch and dinner. My staff started getting comfortable without me. Brian gave me my second near-broken nose for the year. Two months to go.
It’s the day of the fight.
I visit my barber and have him cut my hair short and shave my face. He knows it’s the day; we don’t talk, and he shakes my hand. I visit my own restaurant for lunch and eat outside. When it’s time to make my way to the venue for the weigh-in, I call a cab …and that’s when the health inspector arrives.
I can’t believe it. Twice a year, restaurants are due for a random inspection by the health department. That’s normal. This was normal. Except that out of 364 days to do it, she chose to show up when I’m already five minutes late for the weigh-in of a fight I’ve staked the better part of my year on. I turn around and head back to the restaurant.
My restaurant is ready, but I’m sweating this one. This interruption of the day’s careful ritual seems ominous — what if something goes wrong? My staff is about to embark on handling their first ever dinner service without me at the helm. I watch them holding their breath throughout the inspection; we pass, as I knew we would, and I smile reassurances. I want to stay and see them through this night, knowing that they are shaken. But I can’t. I have to trust them to recover.
Kin and I find our dressing room and double-check our equipment. There isn’t much. Approved shorts and a tank top. Headgear. Mouthguard. Shoes. USA Boxing will provide us with the gloves just before our time in the ring, to ensure regulation size and to prevent any tampering. Eric — the only one Kin lets wrap his own hands — arrives, clutching a small bag like a doctor on a house call.
Eric holds my hands, one at a time, and wraps them quickly but carefully, starting at the knuckles and moving to the wrists. He crisscrosses over the backs of my hands, anchors the thumb and then successively wraps between each finger, repeating the X each time. They’re perfect. In a day full of rituals, the beauty of this one leaps out at me.
He finishes with a few more strips of tape, and even though it’s not what he was brought here to do, he notices loose laces on my shoes and tightens them, then tapes those too. He asks how I feel.
Loud, aggressive music blares backstage from the other dressing room. Someone yells. Kin swings the door shut, then holds up his focus pads, and we hammer out the rhythm we’ve been practicing for months. Eventually, it erases the sounds from the other room.
Suddenly, I’m standing on stage and the bell rings for the first round. My heart is racing. My entire awareness zooms in on a string of hair trapped near Antonio’s right eye, and a bead of sweat rolling down my back.
He didn’t cut his hair today.
This realization is the only thing in my mind for a moment, and then suddenly I am distracted, thinking about teenage boxing classes again. Kin warned me about this; my mind is racing, so I don’t notice the wide looping punch heading for my face. Briefly, I see nothing but black. I can feel my eye swell up even before his glove recoils.
I am stunned on my feet, stars swimming into my vision, but I’ve been here before, so I stick my right hand straight out and it does what it is supposed to do. I move forward with the pressure and combinations we rehearsed. Antonio looks suddenly afraid. I feel suddenly tired. The bell rings to end the round. We have a minute to rest, then we do it again.
For 20 seconds between round two and the final, third round, I am ready to quit. I’m not hurt, but I feel like I can’t stand back up; I try to suck in air but it feels like I’m drowning. Kin is standing over me shouting something I can’t hear.
For a moment, I couldn’t love another man more than I do Kin for taking on a case he must have been sure was a lost cause. For giving up his Wednesdays, then his Sundays, and then his Mondays and Tuesdays in the end, to get me as ready as I can be for this moment under the lights. For bringing me all the way in just like he promised he would.
The bell rings to signal the final round and I haven’t blurted out the words I quit yet so Kin shoves that rubber mouthpiece back where it belongs and I am somehow back up on legs I can’t feel. I meet my opponent in the center of the ring and look in his eyes, and I know he has just lived through some variation of the same thoughts.
Neither of us can do much more. His longer arms catch me each time I tread in toward him, and we finish the round toe to toe, eye to eye, not doing much harm anymore, but neither giving up. I respect him for being here and seeing this through, for standing upright and living through this exchange. The bell rings one last time — we each throw one more punch as it sounds. They both find their targets.
I’m surprised, even as I stand at the center of the ring knowing I am about to see Antonio’s hand raised by the referee, that I feel no embarrassment at my loss. I’m happy, confident. As Antonio struggles in his corner to remove his gloves and headgear, not sure which way to turn next, I am ready and waiting, still loosening up in the ring, for what is to come. I scan the faces of the sold-out crowd, find the ones I love, and give my smiles, blown kisses, raised fists. I don’t feel out of place anymore. I know even before I leave the ring that the strength of this moment will affect the way I run my business forever.
The next morning, I go back to work. My staff has long forgotten about the health inspector, their first dinner service without me a success. And though I may have woken up with a losing boxing record, our first professional review goes live that day. It’s glowing.
This thing of ours likes to grind us down and spit us out. Part of me likes it that way, but then, I’ve never been one to shy away from things like that. The ticket machine churns into action — I hear Kin urging me to “go to the body,” to chip away at the challenge at hand by attacking the foundations, slowly but purposefully — and the night begins.