Food & Wine

Diet of an Olympian

by Heather Wood Rudulph

I am sitting in the lobby of the Bay Club—one of the city’s premier gyms, with locker rooms so vast it’s easy for one to get lost (twice)—waiting for an American icon. It’s been 30 years since Brian Boitano triumphed at the Calgary Winter Olympics, taking home the gold medal in men’s singles figure skating, and stealing America’s hearts right along with it. His performance on that global stage—and during dozens of national and international competitions, including four consecutive U.S. titles, over the course of a nearly 25-year career—was simply captivating. Boitano was known as a technical beast, an athlete so determined to change the sport that he actually did, being the first to successfully land a triple axel, in 1987. He invented a move, the eponymously named Tano triple toe loop, which Olympians still struggle to complete. His face has been seen around the world, his dazzling ear-to-ear smile unforgettable. Even his American-flag-emblazoned skates from Calgary are immortal: They’re preserved forever in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

It’s the smile that instantly gives him away. Walking toward me from across the gym, already in the middle of a warm greeting before we meet, Boitano, who was just 15 years old when he won the bronze medal at the 1978 World Junior Figure Skating Championships, looks almost eerily the same. He’s tall and trim, with sculpted muscles evident underneath his gray cashmere hoodie and with skin that betrays his 54 years. I want to know all his secrets.

Boitano is, of course, known as one of the world’s best figure skaters, his career extending well beyond his defining performance in Calgary, back before Adam Rippon was born. But he’s enjoyed a second act as an amateur chef, hosting his own show on the Food Network, regularly emceeing local cultural events such as the San Francisco Italian Heritage Parade, and hosting Olympics screening parties at venues around the Bay—this year’s was at EPIC Steak. He’s also picked up the reputation of being one of the nicest guys in San Francisco.

“It really has been like two lives,” Boitano says, reflecting on his Olympic milestone. “I was only 24 when I won in Calgary, and it’s been more time since that moment than before. It’s an odd thing to think about.”
While skating is no longer Boitano’s job, he approaches fitness and health with a similar discipline. We’ve met at the Bay Club today just after his regular workout, which he supplements with two-hour skating sessions three days a week. For anyone entering middle age (or any age), it can be a struggle to stay in shape and maintain a healthy diet, especially in a city chock-full of indulgences. But for a former athlete whose every minute was choreographed, every meal intricately planned, for nearly half of his life, it sometimes feels like living in a new world.

“I never did anything for myself,” Boitano says. “It was all about, how do I perform better, stay in shape, eat better, and enhance my professional performance? I took it seriously. It was a good 25 years I had to stay in shape year round and work out constantly. And I loved it. So coming out of that, it’s still a difficult transition for me.”

You do have to be conscious of food, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to have someone else do your meal plan. Brian Boitano

 

Boitano has replaced automation with routine. In addition to religious workouts, he maintains a diet that looks an awful lot like an athlete’s: tuna salad with broccoli and garbanzo beans after every workout (“I’m concerned about my mercury levels,” he admits); lean protein with vegetables for dinner; avoiding carbs (“I never believed in that until I turned 50,” he says. “Each decade our bodies treat us to new surprises.”) Learning that this former Olympic champion also stresses about his croissant intake is not only refreshing, but it reinforces why the creators of South Park cast him as an everyday superhero with the song “What Would Brian Boitano Do?” in their film South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. The answer? He’d tell you to eat chocolate if you craved it, and find a workout that’s fun—like trapeze. “I always did dream of joining the circus,” he confesses.

“You do have to be conscious of food, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to have someone else do your meal plan. You always need to incorporate things that are bad for you, and that you crave. If you’re not allowed ice cream, you’re going to walk by a convenience store, buy a carton, and eat the whole thing,” says Boitano, speaking all the truths (or so I’ve heard).

When he was in training, food was utilitarian, and, frankly, “awful,” Boitano says. “My go-to was a baked potato with plain yogurt for dinner. Boring. So I would always dream about what I would have if I could eat. It started very simple from watching Big Macs on TV, dreaming about eating them—which I’d never do today—to looking at cookbooks, to writing my own recipes.”

Finding a different way to eat and exercise gave Boitano a new freedom; he began to experiment with healthy recipes, giving them his own flair. When he bought his house in Russian Hill, which he shares with his partner of 20 years, actor Franc D’Ambrosio, and their Instagram-famous dog, Hunter (@hunterthedogsf), Boitano started an informal cooking club.

“I was the only one who had a full kitchen, so whenever I was home, all of my close friends would get together and we’d take turns making different dishes. We would talk and eat and drink wine and have the best time,” he says. “Literally for the first time in my life, I was having adult experiences, being able to live a regular life of food and share it with extended family. And I fell in love.”

Boitano was bitten by a new bug: cooking. He wanted to do it all the time, and to share the joy he gained from the experience with as many people as possible.

“Food is about connection,” says Boitano, echoing the sentiments of every professional foodie I’ve ever interviewed. “It’s OK to cook for two, but it’s so much fun to share it. I really have that Italian side of me that says, If you’re not eating or drinking, you’re not having a good time.”

He became obsessed with watching the Food Network and PBS’s Great Chefs, and then acted on an impulse many of us have had, but rarely follow through on: I can do that! But he actually did it. He pitched a show to the Food Network about cooking and skating, but the network knew that Boitano’s greatest talent wasn’t his skills on ice, but his charm and ability to talk to anyone with ease.

What Would Brian Boitano Make? transformed regular food into a culinary adventure (Cuban salsa party, anyone?) and offered easy entertaining tips. It aired for two seasons and garnered positive reviews and a cult following of aspirational home chefs who can’t cook but really, really want to get an education.

I really have that Italian side of me that says, If you’re not eating or drinking, you’re not having a good time. Brian Boitano

 

“I think a lot of the time [hosts of] food shows are pushed to be all-knowing, like possessing the ability to perfectly sauté a cactus,” Boitano says. “My approach is more like, ‘How do you sauté a cactus? Let’s find out!’ I think it’s great for people to see someone like me and still learn something.”

TV networks learned that they wanted to be in the Brian Boitano business. After the success of WWBBM?, Boitano starred in a 2014 HGTV special titled The Brian Boitano Project, which followed the host on his quest to find his roots in Favale di Malvaro in northern Italy, the town where the Boitano name originated. He ended up buying an old family house that needed repair, which viewers saw transformed over the season, and he learned a lot about Old World cooking.

“My deep love of food and its traditions really came to a head as I was renovating my great-great-grandfather’s house and having those long, traditional meals with my family there. Everything in Italy revolves around food; it’s ceremony to them, and so different from America,” explains Boitano, who is cooking up a new TV pitch that would marry Italian and American traditions, which is no small feat.

“Italians think that all Americans eat is Doritos and frozen-food dinners,” he continues. “They have no idea we have so many amazing restaurants here. They don’t like to experiment with food at all. If you don’t make lasagna the way that grandma made it, then it’s wrong.”

He hopes his new show, if picked up, will ease Italians into American cuisine, or at the very least trick them into eating it.

“During a visit last year, I got sick of eating oil and vinegar on my salad. That’s all they use, every time, and it’s so boring,” Boitano recalls. “So I decided to make a simple vinaigrette of mustard, honey and shallots. I knew they wouldn’t eat it if they saw it in a bottle, so I dressed the salad beforehand and served it. Everyone was like, ‘This is so delicious, what is it?’ And I’m thinking, I need to sell salad dressing in Italy, if only I could figure out how to get them to eat it.”

In the 10 years since turning into a semi-pro cook and writing a best-selling cookbook, Boitano’s repertoire has evolved well beyond salad dressing. A favorite go-to recipe when he entertains is sectioned pork shoulder braised in pineapple juice and dusted with a spicy brown sugar rub, then broiled to crispy perfection. He serves it with another sneaky trick: parsnip mashed potatoes, or roasted cauliflower and apple, puréed to mimic the ultimate carb-filled side. “No one ever knows the difference,” he says.

When he’s not cooking for friends, Boitano can be found hanging at his favorite local restaurants: Mourad, Jardinière, and La Folie for special occasions, and Salt House or Anchor & Hope for a quick bite or lunch with friends.

We’ve been talking for well over an hour and watching so many hot bodies filter in and out of the gym that it nearly feels like a workout; my stomach is beginning to rumble. Before we part, I ask him about his legacy. Will he open a restaurant, a skating school, a B&B named after his dog?

“When most people retire, they say, ‘I just want to travel.’ But I have traveled my whole life, and even though I’ve worked since I was 8 years old, I’ve never really had a job. I can’t retire. Besides, that would be boring,” he says. “If I can teach anyone anything (and he does, often mentoring Olympic hopefuls such as Bay Area skater Vincent Zhou, who performed in this year’s Games), I want to help these young people feel better about themselves. I want to help them perform better and give them secrets that change the course of their careers, and hopefully their lives.

“When you are on that huge ice surface alone in the middle of it, and you know everyone is watching you, you’re so exposed in every way—physically, emotionally. It’s hard,” Boitano continues, with emotion. “You have to be totally in control. I think that for athletes—for any of us—the secret of success is you have to know what you’re capable of in here [he points to his heart] and it can’t just come out here [he gestures to his mouth]. I hear people say all the time, ‘I know I can do it,’ but I can tell when that’s bullshit. If I can’t feel it from you, I know your heart’s not in it. If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, you should be doing something else.”

Boitano’s secret, it turns out, is to live your best life.

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