Action Bronson, Eater by Trade, Finds a New Craving: Fitness

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One Saturday morning last month, Action Bronson was on the water at 7, staring down one burly wave after the next. Paddling around on a bodyboard, he was at Skudin Surf at American Dream, a 1.5 million-gallon wave pool in the middle of a three-million-square-foot mall and entertainment complex — a little touch of Dubai in East Rutherford, N.J.

The walls at the pool’s deep end are gridded with letters and numbers, and Will Skudin, Bronson’s friend and one of the top big-wave surfers on the planet, barked over the loudspeaker, “The energy is at 6A!”

Action Bronson — rapper, chef, TV host and, for the last year, a fervent convert to fitness — quickly paddled his way to the appointed spot. A siren rang out to indicate that the wave was coming, and 10 seconds later the water behind him bulked up into a sturdy, curvy wall. Atop it was Bronson, grinning, gripping the top of his bodyboard and pulling it up just enough to ride for a few seconds before spinning out.

“Great technique!” Mr. Skudin yelled. “Just a little late with the drop-in.” But Bronson was already kicking his fins back to 6A, trying to get out in front of the next crest.

Shredding on a bodyboard is only one part of the multifront approach that Bronson — whose nonstage name is Ariyan Arslani — has been deploying on a quest to rescue his future from his past as a culinary roué. Since the beginning of the pandemic, he has lost about 130 pounds, from a high of around 375.

“I was eating like I was a child, like I was a growing boy, anything in sight,” he said at the work/play studio he maintains in an industrial building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “I felt good, but I knew I wasn’t in a good place. I could barely fit in this chair. My stomach would catch on the sides.”

The same gusto and all-consuming fixation he has long brought to eating, Bronson now brings to his regimen: constant workouts, Spartan meals and just the barest helpings of rich food, when his TV work demands it.

“There’s dudes that I know that are just fat because it’s OK with me. Like, I’m making it seem like it’s OK,” Bronson, 37, said. “It’s not right. It’s not right for them, for their family. It’s not a good message.”

On “____, That’s Delicious,” his profanely titled gastro-travelogue that aired on Vice’s cable network from 2016 to 2020 (and just began a fifth season on Bronson’s YouTube channel), indulgence was the raison d’être. Bronson was the affectionate, curious circus ringmaster, bringing a fearless palate and roughneck Queens charm to restaurants around the world.

Always, he ate. “They love to bombard you with food, they love that you love food,” he said. “In a chef’s eyes, when you make food and you watch the person eat it and you watch their eyes roll back, it’s like they get off.”

His enthusiasm was gasoline for the show, and contagious, catapulting him into the food-celebrity ecosystem. For chefs with a sense of adventure and edge, a visit by Bronson was an excuse for bacchanal, and validation of something edgier than mere culinary skill, presenting restaurants as sites of unimpeachable cool.

In 2016, right after Osteria Francescana landed at No. 1 on the annual list of the World 50 Best Restaurants, Bronson was at the restaurant in Modena, Italy, with its chef, Massimo Bottura. Mr. Bottura drove to his house to get a pair of sunglasses for his guest, and even fed him from his hands. “You can’t really say no,” Bronson said.

But consumption without impediment began to take its toll, physically and emotionally. At home, Bronson ordered takeout indiscriminately. He ate with little regard for his own health. His omnivorousness, which was central to how he presented himself on camera, became an albatross.

Eating that way “became comfortable, to where it wasn’t just for the show,” he said, his words punctuated by deep coughs after taking hits of solventless hash oil from an extravagantly expensive glass contraption by the Japanese maker Disk Glass. That relentlessness, he said, was the same as someone doing “heroin every day, the same as coked-out binges weeks at a time. Same thing.”

Food became an increasingly frequent topic of tense conversation with his fiancée, Valeria Salazar, 28, a licensed master social worker. “Out of all the people that’s around him, I was the most aggressive and upfront,” she said. “He was very much offended. He’ll order something and I’d be like, ‘Are you serious?’ And that would start an argument.”

Partners of several years, they were beginning to plan a family. “She’s like, ‘What are you doing? I’m pregnant. You want to leave us now?’” Bronson recalled. “That really hurt.” (Their son, Benicio, was born in November, 2019. Bronson has two teenage children from an earlier relationship.)

He also began to worry about the durability of his body. Toward the end of 2019, he tried to purchase life insurance — after a checkup, he was denied. He developed symptoms of asthma and eczema. His familiar uniform of 3XL and 4XL Carhartt T-shirts began to get tight. Everyday tasks — from using the bathroom to simply breathing — became onerous indignities.

He had signed a contract to write a self-help book — “____ It, I’ll Start Tomorrow,” due out in April — and realized he was in no position to give advice.

“All you think about is, ‘Am I going to die at night when I go to sleep?’” he said.

Bronson jump-started his new life last March with walking, taking long strolls over the Williamsburg Bridge in the spring sunshine. He graduated to jogging and other exercises, building up stamina. Ms. Salazar turned him on to green juice, which he used as meal replacements.

In late May, after he’d lost 60 pounds, Bronson reached out to Dave Paladino, the owner of Impact Zone, a fitness complex in Norwood, N.J., who had been training his friend, the former Yankees pitcher C. C. Sabathia.

When Bronson arrived, Mr. Paladino said, “I said, ‘Oh, this is scary.’ He was very overweight.” But he quickly saw the intensity of his new client. Bronson would drive from Brooklyn in the small hours of the morning and still show up an hour early for Covid-conscious workouts; he started a Sunday morning 6 a.m. “torture chamber” with Mr. Sabathia and a few others.

“People come work out with us, they see us on Instagram and it’s like two fat guys, right? Me and Action — ‘Hey, I think I can do that workout, easy,’” Mr. Sabathia said, laughing. “They can’t hang.”

As a teenager in Flushing, Queens, Bronson had been fascinated with bodybuilding. He drank meal-supplement shakes, read Muscular Development magazine and frequented some of the danker gyms in Queens. In his 20s, he trained with a friend who manufactured home-brew steroids, which he sometimes used himself.

Now, before workouts he opts for smoothies, or branched-chain amino acid supplements. One Wednesday morning last September, he was at Impact Zone at 7:30. With Mr. Sabathia looking on and Mr. Paladino offering guidance, he powered through fast sets on a hydro-rowing machine. On the suspension straps, he positioned his body to almost horizontal, and did pull-ups. Doing single-arm dumbbell rows, he hit 225 pounds, a personal best at the time.

“I needed this work. I needed the mental anguish. I need to feel like I put myself through hell,” he said. “My body is catching up to my ambition.”

Later, he drove from the gym to the handball courts in McCarren Park in Williamsburg, where, after switching his drenched T-shirt for a dry one, he engaged in a couple of vigorous paddleball games with an old friend. Afterward, they walked over to Lilia Caffé, where after being greeted warmly by one of the owners, Sean Feeney, Bronson ordered a Little Gem salad.

Over the past few months, Bronson — who has Barry Bonds’s statistics “from when he was juiced out of his mind” tattooed on his right forearm, a wry nod to single-mindedness — has become so taken with gym life that he started to recreate it in his studio. There, along with his own artwork — he has painted the covers of his last three musical releases — are maces and kettlebells of various sizes, an endless rope trainer, an AssaultRower Elite, an Onnit HydroCore Bag (“for shoulder flexibility,” he says) and an Assault AirBike Elite.

After a ride, Bronson said proudly, “you just throw up all over.”

The change has been clear to Ms. Salazar, who recalled a hike the couple took about four years ago with their dog, which Bronson, who had an injured knee, had to carry. On the walk, “he was so angry,” she said. “I’ll never forget just how upset he was.” But last year, they took the same walk with their baby.

“In the car back home,” she said, he immediately reflected on how far he’d come, saying “‘The first time we did that, I was so unfit.’”

During lockdown, Bronson has done most of the cooking in their Williamsburg apartment — extra lean meals (protein shakes, green juices, grilled chicken and sweet potato) for himself, and food for Ms. Salazar that he avoids eating (Colombian chicken, platanos, cacio e pepe ravioli). For someone so passionate about flavor and texture, the shift has been marked, but manageable.

Initially, Ms. Salazar said “he was so conscious of what to eat that it was very limiting for him — that started to worry me. Now he’s finally figuring out a rhythm. Still some restrictions, but he’s learning how to be a little more lenient.”

If older episodes of “Delicious” made excess seem glamorous, the new ones reckon directly with health trade-offs. Presented with a glass of liquid chocolate mousse in one episode, Bronson takes a small taste, then immediately leaves the shop and heads to his car, where he retrieves a gorilla-faced kettlebell from the front seat and begins swinging it on the street.

During another episode, at L’Industrie Pizzeria, in Williamsburg, he completes about 300 squats in between tasting focaccia and lahmacun. “Earning your food,” he said. When touring is again an option, he’d like to combine fitness and performance — a live performance in a gym, maybe, or sprinkling a few hundred push-ups between songs.

If his summer months in the gym were about letting go of his old self, he now has a goal to aim for. “I was training for something, but it wasn’t quite clear, you know?” he said. “Now it’s quite clear that I want to be training for the rest of my life to be better in the ocean.”

Sometimes, he joins Mr. Skudin at the Rockaways, catching waves in the Atlantic. He’s been learning to read meteorological reports — “It’s like I’m Sam Champion over here” — and watching surf cams from around the world on Surfline. He rides a bodyboard custom made for his body shape by Pride, a French company he is collaborating with on a limited-edition version.

This month at the New Jersey wave pool, he hosted a small fan event, “Barrels With Bronson,” in keeping with his shift to becoming a chaperone for healthier passions. He has a line of olive oils with Grove & Vine, and has appeared in an ad campaign for Daily Harvest, the healthy-food delivery service.

Crucially, remaking his relationship to his body has been a balm for his relationship with Ms. Salazar, though working out now eats up several hours a day. “To be honest with you, she always wants more time,” he said. But hours spent on fitness now, he believes, could mean years spent together in the future: “You want to give yourself the best opportunity and best chance to have as much time as possible.”

And sometimes, the joys of self-care and self-admiration are aligned. In the old days, “at nighttime, I’d just take my socks off and pray that my feet weren’t swollen or my ankle wasn’t swollen.” he said. “You see my ankles now — they’re like model ankles.”

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