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Health and wellness

Triathlete chef they call the pasta machine, and how Italian caught the sporting bug

  • Nicola Russo was a competitive kayaker as a teenager, and dreamed of going to the Olympics, but gave up the sport to train as a chef
  • In his thirties he began running triathlons. He tells us how he fits training around work in a Michelin restaurant in Hong Kong.
PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 November, 2018, 9:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 16 November, 2018, 9:00pm

As a child, Nicola Russo was always active, and competitive. The chef de cuisine at Tosca in the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong hotel remembers playing soccer when he was six, and at 11 started kayaking on the river in Pisa, Italy, where he was born.

He was competing in regional kayak races in Tuscany by the age of 14, and two years later won the Italian championship; he was a member of the national team junior team in 2001.

“I wanted to be in the Olympics,” he says.

But when Russo finished high school at the age of 18, he had a hard decision to make – become a full-time athlete or get a job. He loved his grandmother’s cooking, and liked training too. It was his mother who helped tip the scales towards working in a kitchen.

“She said that an athlete’s career will be until the age of 30, 35 if you’re lucky, and then you finish and then need to find another job or stay in the field,” Russo says.

“When you’re a chef, you can have a longer career and make more money. For kayaking and other [less popular] sports, even if you are the best in the world, you don’t make much money.”

He ended up going to culinary school and enjoyed it, but continued doing sports. Kayaking wasn’t his main sport now, but running, soccer, and boxing.

When Russo was working at the Bulgari Resort Bali, he was keen to challenge himself. The resort’s executive chef, Andrew Skinner, who also likes to keep fit and runs marathons, introduced him to triathlons.

For Russo the resort was the perfect place to train; the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, where he worked, was small and opened only for dinner, leaving him free to train in the morning.

In 2015, at the age of 31, he competed in his first triathlon, comprising a 1.5km swim, 40km bike ride and 10km run, with no expectations, and came 12th in a time of 2 hours 36 minutes.

“I did six to eight months of training … and it was just me and my executive chef. It was a lot of fun. I’m always nervous when I do competitions; I think that’s normal,” he says.

“That day was super hot. It took me 49 minutes to run 10K, which usually takes 40 minutes. But I really liked it – for me it’s about competition. When I do a race I want to win – I don’t just participate, so I decided next year I wanted to be in the top three.”

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The following year, Russo came third in the sprint category in a time of 1:05 (for a 750-metre swim, 20km bike ride, and 5km run) – success he credits to group training. Buoyed by the good result, Russo competed in two more triathlons in Singapore, then in Italy, near Pisa.

His weakest discipline is swimming, so he got help from a former Olympic swimmer, Indonesian Andy Wibowo, who competed in the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, and now focuses on triathlons.

“I learned it’s not about pushing too hard in every training [session]. You should slowly build it up,” Russo says. “You can’t do 100 per cent [in] each training [session], otherwise you can injure yourself. Each training session I focus on different things.”

Russo came to Hong Kong in 2017 and is keen to stay fit. “At Tosca I have more responsibilities and we need to maintain the one Michelin star rating, and the restaurant is open for lunch, dinner and afternoon tea so I have less time for training,” he says.

At first he tried swimming in the public pool at Kowloon Park but there were too many people, and biking has limited routes in the New Territories, so now he runs and works out in the gym at the ICC in West Kowloon where the hotel is. Russo recently began playing soccer again, for the hotel’s team, and scored a goal on his first outing (they won, too). He is looking forward to competing in the SHKP Vertical Run up 2,120 steps in the ICC on December 2.

Russo, now 34, says being a chef not only leaves him without much time to work out, but makes it difficult to maintain a good diet.

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“We do the exact opposite of what you should do – we stand up and eat in a short period of time instead of sitting down and eating your meal slowly. My diet is not perfect but I compensate with training,” he says. “I don’t go to the gym to be powerful. I just go because I like it and keeps me healthy.”

He has studied nutrition, but doesn’t follow a strict diet.

“When I eat lots of carbs, simple sugars, and yeast, they make me feel bloated. So I eat more protein, preferably more fish to meat, and more vegetables like beans, legumes, broccoli. Of course I have to taste things in the kitchen, and one day a week I have a free day where I have dessert, like ice cream or chocolate – I love chocolate.”

He also enjoys eating bread and pasta – the latter not every day – and will indulge in alcohol when he eats out. He doesn’t drink protein shakes, or take steroids or amino acids.

For someone who is super trim, Russo says he only works out about four times a week for one to two hours at a time, and stresses he is not a gym rat.

“I have a life,” he says.

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He’s so fit, hotel staff have nicknamed him the pasta machine – a sobriquet he is quick to dismiss.

“The mamas in Italy used to make the pasta by hand when there was no electricity. I have always used a pasta machine,” he says.