Top Chef will run on top of the world in Gastein
Trail runners are athletes cut from a different cloth. They thrive in the most difficult of situations and pull strength from within as they trudge – often alone – through some of the most beautiful if secluded paths in the world. These highly motivated – and slightly crazy – people come in all shapes, sizes and backgrounds. Butchers, bakers and candlestick makers finish up their nine-to-fives, tie up their laces and push themselves through pain and anguish to get that “runner’s high” and to connect with their inner-selves and the wonderful nature around them.
For the adidas INFINITE TRAILS World Championships – held in Gastein/SalzburgerLand from June 27th to 30th – folks from amazingly diverse walks of life will come from all over the world to take part in maybe the one thing they have in common, trail running.
Of all the vocations that you would expect runners to have, butcher/chef is likely not one of them. These food experts, who have high-stress jobs, are surrounded all day long with scrumptious food and – at least in my imagination – are jolly, Santa shaped people with dirty aprons and funny hats, are not men and women you might expect to be athletes.
Apparently, though there are some obstacles to overcome, you can be a top-notch trail runner as well as a world-renowned chef. Just ask David Schneider, the Head chef and co-owner of the Chefs Warehouse at Maison – Franschhoek, South Africa. He has a long history in food creation, a shorter history of trail running and a fun tail of just how he ended up as a chef and participant of the adidas INFINITE TRAILS World Championships 2019. It’s not a short interview but I promise that it’s worth reading all the way through to learn how this man has pushed through some intense obstacles to be the man he is today, an inspiration to us all.
Without further ado, meet David Schneider:
“I never planned on being a chef at all. In fact my hopes of playing professional rugby led me to study film at the University of Johannesburg. I always wanted to be in the film industry and pursue a career in rugby. After receiving a neck injury at the age of 20, I was forced to withdraw from rugby and I soon lost interest in my studies. I needed to keep myself busy and so I started working as a waiter in a bistro with some old school buddies. Having worked as a waiter during my school days, my interest in the industry was already spiked and this served as confirmation for me to pursue a future in hospitality. I enrolled in the International Hotel School in Sandton, Johannesburg to study Hospitality Management. During my first year of studies I had to do a two-month block in a kitchen, which was quite the challenge having never cooked anything in my life up to that point. Immediately I was drawn to the kitchen culture and team aspect that reminded me of my rugby days. It filled the void that was left after my injury. It was physically demanding, mentally stimulating, creative and came with a real sense of team and camaraderie.”
This last line sounds a lot like a description of running in the adidas INFINITE TRAILS World Championships team relay event!
David’s work journey in a whole has been something like a a 54 kilometer route through the Alps with twists and turns, peaks and valleys, pain and joy. His run was just beginning.
“After returning from my stint in the kitchen I enrolled in a second major in culinary studies. My strategy was simple… If you want to succeed and be the best, then you need to work for the best and push yourself to explore your limits. I have never been able to do anything half-hearted or take the easy way out. During my studies I worked at some of the best establishments around, including The Saxon Hotel in Sandton and the Banyan Tree Resort in Seychelles. My third year I decided to lean towards the kitchen life and took up a job at The Attic restaurant in Parkhurst, Johannesburg under Chef Thom Hughes. I then worked around as much as possible to gain experience which saw me in Florida, USA twice, Roots restaurant in the Cradle of mankind and the Raddison hotel in Sandton.”
He wasn’t quite ready to settle down though. He next took a job as a “chef de partie” (being responsible for a particular area of production in a restaurant) at the DW 11-13 in Dunkel, Johannesburg before relocating to Cape Town to be the commis chef at the newly opened Test Kitchen in Woodstock.
But then again on to something new.
“Whilst this came with a lower position and paycheck, I stuck to my plan of working with the best, and chef Luke Dale-Roberts is certainly an inspiring force in my life. His head chef at the time was Chef Ivor Jones whom I rejoined years later in a very successful business. I went on to grow in the company, becoming Junior sous chef of The Pot Luck Club, under Luke and Head chef Wesley Randles.”
“After almost 2 years with Luke, in 2014, I decided to step out of the kitchen to follow another passion, Butchery… and in particular… Charcuterie. I moved to Paarl and started an apprenticeship with Ryan Boon at his factory in Paarl. I had a theory that there was a large gap between supplier and end user, and that there weren’t people out there who could cut the meat they cooked, and people who could cook the meat they cut. These were by far the most testing yet rewarding two years of my career up to that point and challenged me in many aspects of my abilities, from communication to skills and personal life. Whilst my time with Luke was tough, nothing can quite prepare you for the life of a supplier.”
“After 2 years of working as a blockman and factory manager I made the decision to step back into the kitchen. A friend of mine organised a meeting for me with Chef Liam Tomlin of the Chefs Warehouse and Canteen in Bree street and I jumped at the opportunity. To work once again with one of the top chefs in the country was where I wanted to be, and to utilise all I learned during my time as a butcher. After working as joint head chef at the Bree Street restaurant another opportunity arose within the company, to rejoin my old Test Kitchen Head Chef and open the Chefs Warehouse at Beau Constantia. I took up the position of senior sous chef and together we opened its doors in December 2016. The restaurant went on to place 4th at Eat Out awards in 2017 amongst other accolades.”
This twisting turning path that had led him to multiple cities, countries, restaurants and positions was about to take its next and potentially final step.
“Towards the end of 2017, Liam and Ivor sat me down to present an opportunity. Liam had been approached by Chris Weylandt, of Weylandts furniture, to open a Chefs Warehouse on his wine estate in Franschhoek called Maison wine estate. I couldn’t believe it! I had been to this estate a few years before to deliver meat and remembered looking around and saying to myself, ‘If I ever open a restaurant of my own, I want it to be something like this!’ Liam gave me a significant partnership in the business and I can now proudly call myself the Head chef and co-owner of the Chefs Warehouse at Maison, Franschhoek. We opened our doors on the 26th November 2017, and were placed 16th in South Africa at the 2018 Eat out awards.”
Let’s pause for a minute to give everyone time to book their flights to South Africa…
Okay, now that we know his cooking background and are eager to taste his culinary delights, what about trail running?
David has in fact only been running for around three years after being introduced to it by his brother and now hits the paths three to four times per week.
I asked him if it was easy combining the crazy lifestyle of a chef with trail running and his response was emphatic:
“Whilst I was introduced to trail running and mountain biking a few years ago, any attempt to find a rhythm or training structure failed. I was getting into crossfit when I worked for Luke and just as I started finding continuity, I would stray from the path. My average work day over the past nine years has been 15-18 hours a day, 5-6 days a week. In America, Seychelles and the Butchery I worked stints of a few months without a day off. My body has stayed in shape due to the fact that I built a good base early on in life and stayed active due to my demanding work life.”
The go-go-go lifestyle in the kitchen brought plenty of its own temptations. David was human enough to fall prey to several of them.
“I have always had an issue with alcohol and started smoking when working at The Test Kitchen. I developed a reputation as a hard worker and an equally hard player. I would often take out all my angst and frustration in bars and clubs of my immediate surroundings. I prided myself on my ability to operate on very little sleep for days on end and even indulged in the odd chemical to boost my stamina. I was a king of self sabotage and took very bad care of my health. This pattern of behavior of hard work, promotion, health, exercise, drinking, self-loathing, demise, repeat just went on and on. Never allowing myself to find balance in an already turbulent industry.”
“In the winter of 2018, when things quietened down and I had more time on my hands… I started up with the old behaviours. Binge drinking and staying out all night, drinking and driving and just basically being a general nuisance. After a couple incidents, I realised that something needed to be done.
“I spent September 2018 in a rehabilitation facility. After coming out of rehab, I changed my lifestyle, restructured my working hours and delegated more responsibilities to employees to allow time to develop a consistent routine of training and working. I have just celebrated 7 months of sobriety and going strong. In fact, I am the chairperson of the Franschhoek AA that meets once a week.”
David’s honesty and bluntness woke me up a bit at this point in our conversation. People don’t often talk like this and don’t admit to their failings. It was refreshing and encouraging that this “top chef” and athlete not only struggled but has realized it and has turned things around. It’s a fantastic point for us all that no matter how badly in shape – physically, mentally and emotionally – we might be, there is always a chance for a fresh start. We should also remember that the trails are always there for us, waiting to be explored and eager for us to use them to our advantage.
Now, the big question: Why is he coming to the adidas INFINITE TRAILS World Championships in Gastein/SalzburgerLand, Austria in June?
“A few months ago, Mike and Sonja Hamel (the organisers of the event) came for dinner. I met them last year and we got chatting about outdoor sports such as mountain biking and trail running. I had just gotten back into some running and cycling again and Mike invited me to pick two teammates and head over to Austria and run in the adidas INFINITE TRAILS World Championships. My brother is an avid runner and has completed a couple 100 kilometers races and recently did his first 100 miler in Natal. I knew that this would be a dream opportunity for him and the perfect goal for me to motivate myself to get into some serious training.”
Picking the right teammates is vital for a team relay event like this one in the beautiful Alpine region of Gastein/SalzburgerLand. Not only do you want two people who can finish their routes in good time but more importantly you need encouragement and moral support that will make traveling across the world more fun.
Let’s meet David’s teammates:
- Mathew Schneider (brother)
“He is a teacher at Jeppe School for Boys in Johannesburg. He is in the business studies department and spends his life either running or travelling all over the country for sports fixtures. He is two years older than me and has been my biggest motivation for going back to training and a life of health and fitness. He has completed many endurance races both on foot and mountain bike and even a few half and full iron man competitions. He has been trail running for about 6 years.”
- PJ Vadas (friend and industry colleague)
“He is the Chef and Owner of Vadas Smokehouse and Bakery at Spier Wine farm, Stellenbosch. Hailing from Knysna, he has opened restaurants with the likes of Gordan Ramsey and took The Roundhouse, Camps Bay and Camphors at Vergelegen to Top 10 spots in previous Eat Out awards. He is in my opinion one of the greatest chefs this country has ever produced and a dedicated trail runner. I invited him along as I knew we could train together and motivate each other to stay focused even during the busy season. Besides, he cooks the type of food I absolutely love and it’s comforting to have a like-minded person in the team who also experiences some of the everyday struggles I go through in terms of temptations, work fatigue, staffing issues, customer complaints and all the other thousands of things that drive chefs mad on an everyday basis.”
David is pumped for the chance to run in the adidas INFINITE TRAILS World Championships with his brother and good friend in just over two months time.
“I love the feeling when you are far removed from the busy world and all your daily issues, away in the valleys or on top of the mountains. The terrain changes your perspective…you just realise how insignificant everything is in the greater scheme of things. It’s always humbling to have a daily reminder of the fact that the world doesn’t revolve around you, how small a cog you are in the massive universe, and how vulnerable you are to nature. I love gaining perspective by stepping back and looking on. Whilst I love doing this on my own, if I didn’t have teammates or training partners to push me and keep me focused, I’d probably find an excuse on most days not to train.”
What else could be said than to ask the man one final question: What is the secret to being a good cook?
“How you cook food represents how you approach life… appreciate the simple things and focus on getting them right. The perfect dish is simply one in which all the small things have been done with love, passion, care and appreciation for all the other components. TIME truly is the most important ingredient… so don’t waste it.”
Good luck David, we will see you on the trails and at the Chefs Warehouse at Maison, Franschhoek next chance we get!
~ Kevin Gillikin