John Karangis, the executive chef of Shake Shack, says he usually wakes up at 3:30 a.m. This is by choice. The 48-year-old isn’t rising and grinding at an unseemly hour to cook, concoct, and taste-test chicken, burgers, hot dogs, fries, and milkshakes—those are tasks he saves for later in the day. The crack-of-dawn start-time is because he can’t stop himself from competing in marathons and triathlons—both of which require a fair amount of early-morning training.
Karangis began cooking at an early age, including (illegally) at a restaurant at 13. He went to culinary school and came into the orbit of Danny Meyer, the founder of Shake Shack, who helped him launch a career in fine dining. So when Meyer and company came calling again, Karangis jumped at the chance to team back up. And in October 2018, he transitioned to his decidedly less high-end but equally tasty current job.
Karangis’s journey as an athlete is a little more recent: it started 16 years ago, he says, as a bucket list one-off marathon turned into a lifelong hobby. Then he added training for Ironman triathlons to his regimen in 2014. Both forms of exercise are a welcomed respite from the sometimes not-so-healthy rigors of Karangis’s day job, which does indeed feature the ingestion of a whole bunch of burgers.
In an interview with GQ, Karangis explains how he and his colleagues in the Shake Shack Innovation Kitchen try to maintain a healthy diet, and he explains why he really, truly craves Shake Shack every year after running the New York City Marathon.
GQ: Can you walk me through a typical day for an executive chef of a fast-casual restaurant?
John Karangis: I wake up at 3:30 a.m., and I’ll have maybe a banana, some cashew butter, a cup of coffee, and I’ll hit the road. I train one or two disciplines—swimming, cycling, or running. I usually start my exercise at 4:45 and do that as long as my schedule dictates for the day. I’ll shower at home or the gym, grab a small recovery breakfast, and go to work. I’m usually at work by 8, and leave sometime around 5 or 6. I try to be in bed by 10 p.m.
How often are you eating Shake Shack for lunch?
Part of our role in the Innovation Kitchen is to develop new recipes for Shake Shacks all over the world. We’re constantly cooking and having tastings. Throughout the day, as a chef, you’re cooking and tasting enough to get a sense of what works, what doesn’t, while also being mindful of what you’re eating. I try to integrate a salad lunch into the mix, especially if I’ve got a big tasting with a burger or shake that day. I want to make sure I’ve also got some grains, quinoa, greens, and a little dressing. But I’m active during the work day and it kind of goes by so quickly that my lunches can vary. There are definitely days where my lunch is bits and pieces of whatever I’m eating in the Shack. When I get home, my wife is a great cook, and whatever she’s making, I’ll eat. Then I try to prep my breakfast for the next morning to make my morning a little lighter.
I’m not super regimented, but I try to be mindful of what I’m eating. There’s a team of three of us, so we’ll divide those tasting tasks up to make sure we each live a balanced lifestyle and we’re not taking in a ton of calories. My colleagues and I look out for each other, to be honest. We’ll say, okay, there’s a big tasting tomorrow, here’s what we need to do. But it’s also important to sometimes put ourselves in the shoes of a guest and experience something with the intent that we want them to experience it.
How do Shake Shack smells hit you? Do you still get hungry from them? Or have you smelled it all at this point?
Oh, I really do get hungry from the smells. I won’t deprive myself if I know I’m going to have a heavy workout the next morning. It’s really just being cognizant of what you’re doing.
You mentioned in a recent interview that there are no immediate plans at Shake Shack to try plant-based stuff. Have you taste-tested Impossible Burger options from other fast-casual places? What do you think of them?
It’s been an incredible phenomenon, and is definitely something I didn’t see coming. Great food needs to start with great ingredients, and I’ve always been able to assess what those ingredients are. I didn’t know much about the meat analogue space, including the ingredients. I’ve learned a lot this year and am continuing to learn, and that analogue will continue to evolve. What I’ve tasted I’ve appreciated, but have never found to be delicious or something that I wanted to eat. I think improvements will continue to be made, and there may be a day where that’s on our menu. Right now it’s not. We’re testing a veggie burger with fresh vegetables, grains, greens, and herbs—ingredients that are at our core and have always been at our core. But we’re keeping a close eye on it.
When did you really get into running marathons?
In my 20s, I wasn’t as active as I should’ve been. I wouldn’t have called myself an “athlete” at all, and had no idea what training for a marathon entailed. I always wanted to do it, but it was never a priority. I was tired of putting it off and not delivering on my own promise, so about 16 years ago, I finally tried marathoning as a one-time bucket list thing. I’ve been hooked ever since. Marathoning changed my life.
My first half-Ironman was in 2014 in Raleigh, North Carolina. The ultimate goal for me is to race KONA, the Ironman World Championships. Every day I just kind of trudge along hoping to get there one way or the other.
What’s your marathon schedule look like now?
I was initially doing one a year, and a couple of small triathlons. Now I try to always do at least one fall marathon, and use this time of year to train for spring and summer triathlons. I’ve got about six races for 2020 that I’m excited about. February 1 is when my Ironman training typically starts. The good news about that training is that it’s arduous, but helps you prepare for smaller races as well.
Have you always started your day at 3:30 a.m.?
I was never that early of a riser until I started marathon training. I get up a little bit earlier during Ironman training, too. For that type of training, you want to do two-a-day workouts, and usually those workouts get split, simply because of the length of time it takes to accomplish them. That split doesn’t work for me, because my biggest goal—aside from competing in these races—is making sure I don’t miss any quality time with my family. I’ve got three kids and a wife, I love them, and I want to see them. My commitment to myself is that I’m not going to consume their time for a goal of mine, with the exception of the actual race days. So it might not feel good getting up so early, but it feels good knowing that it’s over with, and when I come home, I’m there and I’m available.
What’s your recovery process like after competing in a grueling event?
Different races have different recovery times. It’s funny, the New York Marathon is one I’ve done a bunch, and you exit Central Park on the Upper West Side after the race. Long before I started at Shake Shack, my go-to every time I left the marathon was to go to the Shake Shack over there, get a beer and a SmokeShack. That’s honestly been that recovery meal. For the Ironman, it’s a totally different experience. It takes so much out of me and my recovery doesn’t really start until the next day. But the week after an Ironman, I’m just ravenously hungry. Anything I see—it’s the most incredible feeling—I just eat it. Carbs and protein—salads don’t do it for me that week.
I would imagine the Innovation Kitchen is a nice place to be during that week of recovery post-Ironman.
Oh yeah, 100 percent.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Real-Life Diet is a series in which GQ talks to athletes, celebrities, and everyone in-between about their diets and exercise routines: what's worked, what hasn't, and where they're still improving. Keep in mind, what works for them might not necessarily be healthy for you.
The nine-time Olympic gold medalist says he eats healthier now than during his athletic prime, when he was all about Big Macs.
Originally Appeared on GQ