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Collapsed on a black gym mat with his long limbs splayed, Danny Meyer looks like a frog. Not the frog featured in the Poached Organic Egg with Everglades Frogs' Legs and Oregon Blue Foot Mushrooms that is on the $76 tasting menu at Eleven Madison Park, one of Meyer's 11 New York restaurants. No, after a strenuous 60-minute workout, his eyes are glassy, his legs are floppy, and his skin has a sweaty sheen.
Considering that Meyer, 48, spends nearly every waking moment around food, you might think he subjects himself to the one-hour equivalent of Marine Corps boot camp simply to stay thin. But Meyer, who was a husky kid, says his thrice-weekly workout session with fitness guru David Kirsch isn't about keeping a lid on his weight (165 pounds). "I use this time to work out my aggression and stress," he says. He also gets an energy boost.
Before he started training with Kirsch four years ago, his main exercise was running. Yet with all the time Meyer spent on his feet and all the lifting that came from parenting four kids, now 7 to 13, "my back was killing me."
Meyer tried to alter his exercise routine by visiting a downtown gym, but customers constantly spotted him and wanted to talk food. "It wasn't my time," he says. A St. Louis native, Meyer is too Midwestern and too focused on hospitality to be anything but polite. In fact, he spells out his philosophy on keeping customers and staff happy in his new book, Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business (HarperCollins). "Business, like life, is all about how you make people feel," Meyer writes. "It's that simple, and it's that hard."
Meyer knew Kirsch as a customer, and the trainer invited him to his private gym, Madison Square Club, for a workout. After one distraction-free session, Meyer was hooked. The gym is also less than a 10-minute walk from his home and five of his 11 restaurants, which include the Union Square Cafe and the Gramercy Tavern. That was appealing, too.
To cure Meyer's back problems, Kirsch designed a fitness regimen that emphasizes building his core strength. The entire workout is typically focused on abdominal exercises, which may include -- much to Meyer's dismay -- stomach crunches holding a medicine ball that he tosses back and forth to Kirsch as he sits up. "You are mean, mean, mean," Meyer says as he nears his 15th sit-up. Another ab exercise he loathes requires him to hold his upper body in a pushup position while kicking his feet out across the floor. Kirsch varies the workout menu to keep it interesting.
Meyer may be the culinary expert, but Kirsch dishes out plenty of dietary advice. Meyer showed up for his first workout wearing a "Grateful Palate Bacon of the Month Club" T-shirt. Kirsch -- whose idea of a gourmet meal is an egg-white frittata with turkey sausage and a vitamin shake -- banned the shirt. Meyer learned to be mindful about what he consumes the night before a workout. "David can actually tell what I ate for dinner," Meyer says. Pasta is out, since Kirsch will chide him for having a bloated "carb face."
Clearly some of Kirsch's eat-healthy edicts have rubbed off: Meyer tries to have a salad for lunch, and he serves Kirsch's proprietary vitamin drinks at the Shake Shack, his upscale hot dog and hamburger stand in Madison Square Park.
The client-trainer relationship can be an adversarial one, as when your trainer is yelling at you to hold wobbly legs in a squat for another 30 seconds. Expletives fly. "I know he is on my side," Meyer pants, as he does side crunches off a bench with Kirsch sitting on his feet. "But sometimes it doesn't feel that way." Yet the two clearly like each other. They compare notes on baseball -- Meyer is a St. Louis Cardinals fan, but he holds season tickets for Kirsch's favorite team, the New York Mets.
Sometimes Meyer can't resist tormenting his torturer: "Anyone want to go to the Shake Shack? I think I'll get the cheese fries," he says after he collapses on the mat for his final stretch. Although Meyer is a sweaty mess, the session ends with a hug, albeit one with a clean towel between the two men.
By Lauren Young