Alwyn Cosgrove, Craig Ballantyne and John Berardi, proof that the greatest men are not born in the USA

What a weird title for a post, huh? Well, there’s a reason behind. If you have never heard about the three gentlemen I mentioned, let me suggest you Google them and start reading. These guys are no rocket scientists (Berardi can get pretty geeky with food chemistry, though), they are fitness professionals that are helping thousands of people around the world to destroy useless concepts about training, nutrition and health, and shift to stuff that actually works. I think that what attracted me in the first place to their points of view was that everything they wrote made perfect sense, and yet it was politically incorrect. More of less the same thing that happened when I was introduced to Diamond Way Buddhism. But back to these guys, as soon as I began reading their stuff I was hooked and super motivated to put theory into practice. It was the perfect timing too, right after recovering from my toe fracture.

I started by testing Cosgrove‘s suggestions for interval training. I printed out his chart and gave it a go in the gym’s treadmill. Right from the start I understood what they all meant by intensity: while the workout looked easy (run for a few seconds and then rest), it totally tested my cardio fitness. I decided to try a weight training program but couldn’t decide between Cosgrove’s and Ballantyne‘s. At the end I chose the second one because it was downloadable, and bought it just in time for the “Cofla” contest.

“Cofla” is the word us Peruvians use instead of “flaco”, which means “skinny”. Some friends at the company I used to work in (a software development company, where at least 90% of the staff was male and a big percentage overweight) created that contest that lasted for two months and had for winner the person who lost the most body fat in proportion to their initial body fat (the first time they measured weight but then realised that body fat was a better guideline). The contest was great because it encouraged people to be active and eat well, at least for two months a year. Each person paid a participant fee, and the winner got the big fat amount plus a free lunch at a great seafood restaurant, where the final results were announced. People who gained body fat instead of losing it had to buy a round of pisco sours each for all the participants. I entered the competition in the summer of 2007. I bought Turbulence Training and got good results, but didn’t win the prize (I ended in a very respectable 5th place amongst 21 persons, 19 of them men).

I didn’t reach my real goal, which was going back to my lowest fat percentage ever, but I definetely noticed a big improvement in my physique and fitness level. I tried all Turbulence Training workouts, and then bought John Berardi’s Metabolism Advantage. His website precisionnutrition.com has become my #1 source of nutrition information and advice. The training program was good, maybe a bit on the “classical” side (lower body, upper body, full body splits), but effective after all. What’s more effective in the end is mixing programs so that your body doesn’t get used to a routine that becomes easy to perform.

I use weight training as my foundation for building up strength (as a means to live a long, healthy life) but I have always had a main activity. For almost three years it was taekwondo, until I finally left it because many things got in the way (I changed jobs and had to be earlier in an office that was further away from the gym, I moved further away from the gym, my instructors left the gym where I was a member). When my gym membership expired I felt like I had no reasons for renewing it and bought dumbbells instead (the ones with interchangeable plates). I trained at home every other day and kept on practising my kicks. At that time I started postrations too, a meditation that involves serious physical activity. Of course the aim of the meditation is to develop certain inner qualities but the by-product is stronger upper abs, shoulders, and arms, as well as increased cardio fitness (if done with intensity and in high volumes).

After a while I finally accepted my husband’s multiple offers to teach me kung-fu and we started training in our backyard. Fighting with my fists was a completely new experience for me, because we only used them in TKD for practising forms, and not when fighting (there were no points given for punching until a few years ago). Then we moved temporarily to my in-laws house, where we couldn’t train as frequently as possible because of the lack of room and time (the house was further away from my office, so I spent much more time in buses). A few months later we moved again. The new house was close to a big, nice park, so we included running in our workout routines. Alvaro started preparing himself for applying to the Australian Defence Force months before we came here. I did sprinting intervals after postrations.

A few months before coming to Sydney we began training kung-fu with Alvaro’s sifu, Walter. We trained on Saturdays in the park near home. Then, when I quit my job one month before coming, we started training a couple days a week in the gym were Walter works. As usual, I thought I wasn’t fit enough to handle the training, but I was.

Then we moved here and I spent two and a half months looking for work. Of course we kept training as much as we could, bodyweight exercises at home and some running at the park. Once again, Turbulence Training bodyweight program helped me maintain my fitness level. When I finally got a job, and got my first payment, I visited the three gyms that are near my house. I really liked one, the BBB (“bueno, bonito y barato”: good, nice and cheap), so I signed a 12-month membership. I got an appointment for a fitness assessment, mainly to measure my body fat after a long time of mirror-guessing. I decided to ask for a weight lifting routine, too, for a bit of variety. I performed the 8-week program they gave me, but didn’t like it very much. So I went back to Turbulence Training. I’m also doing boxing 2 to 3 times a week, which was a huge challenge at the beginning (remember I used to be a kick girl, not a punch girl), but I’m getting better at it.

I’ll finish Turbulence Training programs right before travelling to Peru on April. I know I’ll come back with a few extra kilos of pure body fat, so I’ll have to train hard as soon as the plane lands. I still have to decide between repeating The Metabolism Advantage or start The New Rules Of Lifting For Women, which I recently bought and haven’t read yet.

Going back to the guys in the title of this post, this is a summary of why I respect everything they write:

  1. Their work is based on a critical analysis of scientific research, meaning that they not only do what science says works, but they compare that with real-liferesults.
  2. They build programs that maximise energy expenditure.
  3. They choose free weights and classic, effective exercises over machines and useless movements.
  4. They always stress that nutrition is more important than exercise.

My first cooking gigs

Time flies when you’re having fun, so my year in the hospitality school was over very soon. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to give up my pretty decent salary, so I kept working as an IT professional on weekdays and as a kitchen hand on weekends. My first gig was with a teacher who owned a catering company, mostly for weddings. I learned that catering is a very stressful job, where part of the success depends on the facilities that the venue provides. You must be extra careful with temperatures, and extra accurate with timing. The worst thing is that you are not in your fortress, but in the client’s side of the court. I felt a bit like when I used to travel to the client’s office to develop or deploy software there. I worked a couple of times with this teacher, and was paid a modest amount of money which basically covered transportation.

The second gig I had was for one of the most important seafood restaurant chains in Lima. I worked there on some weekeds in October and November 2006. They operate in the most important bullring in Lima – Plaza de Acho – during the yearly October – November bullfight season. In my opinion it’s one of the things we shouldn’t have inherited from Spain, but the fact is that people love it. The bullring is full during the season, even when tickets can cost hundreds of dollars. It’s more of a social thing, you can see well-known politicians, journalists, actors, etc., with their best clothes in the dusty venue, which by the way is located in one of the most dangerous districts in the city. Of course is a great opportunity to make money feeding people, so this restaurant offers a three course menu for 70 soles (around US$ 23), that would normally cost a third or a half of the price. The venue is old (it was built in 1765, and it’s the oldest in America and the second oldest in the world) and so are the facilities used by the restaurant. Pair that with the lack of hygienic control from management and you get a not very germ-free lunch at a way too high price. But the restaurant’s got its reputation so it’s packed at lunchtime. It was a very good working experience for me, I learnt how to be fast in stressful situations with a fouled-mouth boss yelling at everybody. We even learnt how to sneak beers and desserts when he was not around. Again, the pay was extremely low, even for full time staff of the owner’s other restaurants who went for extra cash on weekends.

I got my third and fourth gigs through my friend Lucy. She had a bar and managed a restaurant and let me gain some experience in both of them. The bar was located in the most touristic district in Lima, but was not very busy. It had a more intimate atmosphere. Of course, the main thing there were the drinks, so there were only two people in the kitchen. I went on Friday and Saturday nights to help them, this included chores from mise en place to dish washing, and everything in between. The food we served (mostly appetizers, plus some carpaccios and dishes like lomo saltado arranged in a platter) was good, except for the sushi. The lomo saltado (stir-fried beef tenderloin, red onions and tomatoes with vinegar and soy sauce, served over yellow potato chips) was spectacular when head chef Maldonado was working there. Usually the kitchen was not very busy, so it was more like a relaxing thing to do on weekend nights, considering also that half of the bar staff were my friends (the owner had a phylosophy of trying to hire people she knew and trusted).

I stayed there for some months, and then came to Sydney to activate my visa. When I returned I asked Lucy if I could get some work experience in the restaurant she was managing, she spoke to the head chef and the owner and they agreed. That restaurant, located in the same district, is big and pretty well-known. The main theme here is Mediterranean cuisine, with some Peruvian influences. At that time there were 7 people working in the kitchen: chef, sous-chef, pasta chef, salad chef, dough maker, dessert chef, plus one all-rounder and two dish washers. It’s the biggest and best organised kitchen I’ve ever worked in. You could tell that the owner is a chef herself because everything was really well planned and controlled, from portion weight to plating pics and instructions. I got there after work and didn’t stop working until around 11 pm, when we had a dinner break. After that I helped a bit more with some things for the next day and left the place around midnight. More than knowledge, I gained practice working in a very busy kitchen, this time for a boss who treated staff with respect.

Sadly, that was my last cooking gig. Working for others, anyway. From April 2006 to August 2007 I sold desserts in my office (sometimes I doubled the quantity because my sister sold some in her office). The two things I really enjoyed about that were planning which desserts to prepare for the following week (I usually made a batch of muffins and one of cakes/mousses/cheesecakes or pies each day) and receiving feedback from the customers. I learned that the best feedback was non-spoken: it was the amount of time that I had the desserts sitting on my desk. Sometimes they would dissapear within 30 minutes I arrived to the office, sometimes I had to do a bit of marketing (emailing or calling people to offer the desserts of the day), and this helped me analyse the behaviour of clients. Good stuff.

How my bodyfat went logarithmic… and back to normal

Around June 2006 I had a bit of a problem. I had a taekwondo test to get a new belt, which included a fight against a more advanced student. Everything went well until I accidentally kicked my oponent’s knee with my big toe and I felt pain. There’s lots of pain involved in contact sports, so I just glanced briefly at my toe and noticed that it was twisted. I knew there was something wrong, so I stopped and stepped aside. The Korean referee checked my toe and pulled it back to its place. I limped to where some friends were and sat down, one of them, who is a doctor, told me that since I could move it, chances were that it wasn’t broken. I stayed until the end of the test (of course, I didn’t have to break boards due to the circumstances), went downstairs, took a shower, went to the ground floor, got out of the gym and took a taxi to the clinic.

Once there, a nurse asked me what was wrong and sat me down in a wheelchair. “There’s no need” I said, but that was the procedure. The resident traumatologist had a look at my toe and sent me for X-rays. When they were ready, he told me “it’s broken”. I couldn’t believe it, I had never ever had anything broken. He showed me the image of my broken bone. A huge “X” all over the phalange confirmed it was seriously broken. The doctor plastered my foot up to the middle of the calf, while I called my mom to tell her the news. I told her to buy me crutches and wait for me outside of the house. I took a taxi, went home and spent the next two weeks there, working in my room.

I was in bed or at my desk most of the day, with the foot up, alternating work with TV (only changing between Discovery Travel & Living and elgourmet.com). I went downstairs three times a day, to eat the delicious meals that my mom cooked for me. Of course, I was getting spoiled, which meant that besides creamy soups and great stews I also had some tasty bread and sweet treats. Needless to say, I gained lots of weight (luckily, I don’t like tight clothes, so I didn’t have to buy new pants). I was still going to my cookery classes, but I had to miss the final exams and reschedule them. But I couldn’t avoid tasting my friends’ dishes for their final exams… lots of calories and zero physical activity.

After two weeks I had an appointment with the doctor to check the healing process and I asked him to take the plaster off. He told me the average time was between 4 and 6 weeks but I insisted and he agreed. I still had to wrap my foot and walk on crutches but I felt much more free. Of course I still couldn’t work out for a while so my fat percentage kept increasing.

The healing process was slow but eventually I went back to training, first doing some cardio (taebo, body combat) and weight lifting and a few weeks later taekwondo, very carefully and with martial arts shoes for a bit of protection. Slowly I burned all the fat again. My toe still hurted for a long time, so I could never practise TKD with the same intensity as before.

How things led me to cooking again

During all this time (school, uni, first years as a professional) I cooked once in a while. My favourite dishes to prepare were cebiche (raw fish marinated in lime juice with onions, chillies, sweet potato, and corn) and pasta. I baked desserts once in a while, too.

As mentioned before, I had a new friend called gastritis, who magically appeared around the time when I started traveling for work. Whoever thinks that traveling as part of your job is cool has obviously never done it or has a job that doesn’t involve programming software in the client’s office. Anyway, I had a few trips over the world, I really enjoyed having the opportunity of visiting places like Hong Kong, but I hated the stress and long hours that were involved in almost all of my trips.

On June 2005 I was in Mexico City, programming an accounting software and wondering what should I do with my life. As I left the office at lunch time and went to this cool restaurant in which you built your own salad with really yummy ingredients, it stroke me like lightning. I knew I wanted to cook for a living.

I stayed a few weeks in Mexico and after getting home I started getting quotes from all cooking schools I knew of. Le Cordon Bleu was my first choice but it was really expensive and classes were only at daytime (meaning I would have had to quit my job and lose the money income I needed for the tuition fee). Most options were unviable because of the starting times but there was this school just a block away from my office with a one-year program in which classes started at 6:30 pm. That sounded perfect, so I started studying on September 2005. I told my boss that I wouldn’t be able to travel anymore during the next year because I had enrolled in a course (I didn’t mention what kind, but he eventually found out).

I was very short of time at that moment but still managed to train, work, study, be in a band, and have a boyfriend. Soon after starting the program I began preparing desserts and selling them at my office and my sister’s office. So my typical day was something like this:
6 am: Wake up
7 am: Taekwondo or weights
8 am: Take a shower and go to the office
6:30 pm: Get out of the office, walk 100 meters, wait until being able to cross safely the Javier Prado avenue, enter the cooking school, change my clothes and go into the classroom/kitchen
Anywhere between 9:30 and 11:50 pm: Go home. Three days a week prepare desserts and package them.
Go to sleep.

I had lunch with Alvaro (my current husband) on Wednesdays and spent more time with him on weekends. On Saturdays, after going to the gym, I met him in his kung fu class and then we went to his house. On Sundays I played tennis, had lunch and went to rehearse with the band. Alvaro went with me and read a book or something while we rehearsed.

This went on for a while until my energy was completely depleted. First I stopped playing tennis, then I started skipping training days. I gained weight as a consequence of cooking and tasting food every day, but I tried to adhere to my eating and training plans outside from the classes. Later I quit the band.

I noticed a few things changing within me during that year (besides my body fat, of course). One is that I became increasingly interested in nutrition. I began to think that maybe that was another career path I should think about (I still think that, but haven’t done anything about it yet).

The other thing is that my palate evolved very quickly as a response to constant exposure to prime quality ingredients and dishes prepared by top chefs. While it was true that my interest for highly processed foods decreased as a result of my healthy eating awareness, my tastebuds started to demand better prepared food. This is what anyone would from cookery students, but I was surprised to see that the vast majority in my class chose KFC for group lunches and fried super fresh salmon and sole sashimi as soon as the Japanese Cuisisine teacher left the kitchen.

I began to truly appreciate all dimensions of food and wine: smell, texture, taste, depth, contrast, temperature, harmony, layout, colour, etc. Naturally, I started to expend more money, both when eating out and when buying groceries for cooking at home. My family and Alvaro got some side effects too: yummy food and body fat increase.