I started cooking at 12 years old. My start was at ‘The Bridge’ — a large waterfront seafood restaurant at the foot of the bridge that leads you to beautiful Ft. Myers Beach, Florida. My brother Doug owned the place so I would come down from Michigan and spend a month or so during summer breaks. I earned my stripes by cleaning the parking lot, touching up the paint and other odd jobs around the property all the while dreaming of an opportunity to work in the kitchen. On a blistering hot Sunday afternoon I got the call up! "Marco, we are short staffed, I need you in the dish pit like yesterday!"
Give me those instructions now and it's a different response, but back then, it felt like I was just called up from the minors and asked to pitch a closeout game in the world series!
My first summer was spent washing dishes and scrubbing everything in the kitchen, I had that place shining! Lo and behold, another call up came my way in the form of prep cook - I was hooked! I instantly became a favorite amongst the kitchen staff for my quick work, willingness to do what was needed and consistency. Naive? Perhaps, but somehow I knew then that being a chef was my calling. So, I went back home after my summer break ready to get a job in the industry. One small problem — I was still under 16 years old and I couldn’t get a job like the one I had at The Bridge. I learned that the only reason my brother could allow me to work at his restaurant was because we were directly related. While I was disappointed that I couldn’t get a job yet, I knew my day would come eventually. In the meantime, I spent my free time educating myself by reading about restaurants, famous chefs and food preparation while anxiously awaiting the next summer break and my chance to go show off what I had learned.
I spent the next three summers working at The Bridge and learning the fundamentals of cooking. Then the summer of 1992 arrived along with my opportunity to get a real job, I was now 16! It was in New Baltimore Michigan at the ‘Green Turtle’, a family owned restaurant that served a wide array of dining options that I got my second real job. I started out in the dish tank but that didn’t last very long. The owners recognized my dedication and hard work, so they actually gave me a shot as a prep cook. I took full advantage of this opportunity with the intention of proving to the owners that I was worthy of being a line cook. After a few weeks it paid off, I was promoted. Context: if advancing from lot clean up to dish tank was like a world series closeout game, prep to line cook was like pitching a no-no in said game and winning it all!
I continued working in restaurants into my late twenties. Everything from ‘fill ’em and bill ‘em’ concepts, to 5-star dining at world class resorts. I won’t go on record by saying that I learned it all, we are all constantly learning and growing, but I learned a lot — from the five mother sauces to growing all of your own produce and creating menus from the harvest.
The restaurant industry is a hard business, and like a lot of folks that work in this sector, I burned out and needed a change. So, I jumped into the fitness industry. I had always been pretty athletic and took good care of myself so it seemed like a natural fit, and it was. I loved it so much that I started my own personal training business and eventually worked my way up to a Strength and Conditioning Coach for the local Arena Football team. Life was great!
As I entered my thirties I started focusing on what I deemed as a more long-term career field and became a multi-line road sales rep with ironically, my big brother! He was now retired from the restaurant business and had a sales agency that was booming. We traveled the eastern United States selling our lines to big box retailers and made a pretty decent living doing so. Years went on and I was working for some of the largest apparel brands in the business, life was great again..so I thought….
The fall of 2017 was a life changing time for me.
It was during my annual doctor visit that I received news that frightened me to my core. A little family history — my father died at an early age from heart disease and diabetes. After his passing I had made a personal vow to myself that I wouldn’t ‘go out like the old man’. But here I was at age 40 facing hypertension, diabetes, dangerously high cholesterol, medically obese with an overall poor health grade.
What did I do wrong? I mean I thought I ate healthy, I worked out regularly and I felt pretty good. The truth was I wasn’t living a healthy life at all. I had gotten pretty out of shape by drinking too much alcohol, eating nutrient deficient foods and succumbing to a sedentary lifestyle. It’s a strange thing that we humans do…this denial behavior, and trust me when I say, I was leading the pack when it came to denial! I just chalked it up to my age and this is just what happens. I mean come on, I am 40 now, right? Wrong! I was denying my true self, my dharma and I was doing it by making extremely poor food choices. Me, a chef, a fitness professional, a person that should absolutely know better, no excuse! The truth was, I had gained over 35 lbs. of body fat and was tipping the scales at a very unhealthy 250 lbs. All my clothes were busting at the seams, I couldn’t walk up or down the stairs without feeling completely winded and I had severe back pain, I mean laying on the ground and staring at the ceiling begging for relief type of back pain.
The time for change was now!
The solution didn’t come to me right away. I did the whole ride my bike and get a gym membership thing for a few months, but the results were inconsistent at best. I would lose 10 lbs. here, gain 5 lbs. back there. It wasn’t a real change, and I needed a real change or else I was repeating my father’s mistakes. That’s when I discovered a whole food plant-based lifestyle. Mind you, as a chef I had always prided my skills by the wide variety of meat, poultry and seafood dishes that I could prepare. How could I cook without those ‘staples’…where would I get my protein, and how would I get enough B12? Learning comes to us in all sorts of forms — mine hit me through a few awakening documentaries which spawned into extensive studying and a new way of living.
I started out by eliminating dairy and red meat only consuming chicken and pork. The impact was noticeable in just a couple of weeks. Inflammation that I didn’t even realize was negatively impacting my body, went away. So, I decided to go all in and eliminate all animal products from my diet. After a few months it was working, I mean really working! I had not consumed a single animal product for 8 months and I now weighed 205 lbs. and I felt better than ever! I was riding my mountain bike through trails with some of the best local riders and keeping up! My back pain — completely gone and my clothes, well I needed new clothes because nothing fit anymore, they were all too big!
But the question still remained, was what I was doing from a food perspective actually healthy? Or was I robbing my body of essential nutrients? I had pretty much known from my own research and quite frankly, how great I felt, that what I was doing was indeed very healthy. But the numbers don’t lie. So, after one year, I went back in for my annual physical and had my blood work done — a full lab; cholesterol, glucose, everything. Not to my surprise, it all checked out! Not only did it check out, everything drastically improved. I went from all of the aforementioned health issues to all of them no longer even remotely a concern. Cholesterol was perfect, even better than perfect. Hypertension and diabetes, zero trace!
I walked out of the doctor’s office that day smiling from ear to ear and what felt like a green glow (you know, plants!) surrounding me — that day The Phytogenic Chef™ was born! It is my calling, my purpose, my dharma to share this story and help others that are in the same place that I once was. I wasn’t living a bad life, I just wasn’t living to my potential and now I am.
Marco — The Phytogenic Chef™