This Olympian Left Sports To Pursue A Culinary Quest For Perfection

Michael Stember’s life has been defined by forward motion. In college, he ran track for Stanford. In 1999, he ran the 1500 meters in the Pan Am Games. Then, in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, he ran for his country in front of all the world.

This high-level success could never have been achieved if Stember hadn’t taken his training seriously — hours on the track powered by a diet of fast, easy carbs, proteins, and fats. For many athletes, that means pastas, simple carbs, protein shakes, and powdered supplements. But Stember is also a deeply inquisitive soul, and he sensed there might be a better way.

Eventually, Stember discovered fresh, raw fish — it was a nutrient-rich protein with enough fat to supplement his runner’s lifestyle. This was a revelation. Not only did he love eating sushi, but he learned it was better for him. Worlds collided.

What Stember had discovered is what’s known as the Inuit Paradox — a theory about how fatty, cold-water marine proteins break down more easily in the body, therefore offering a healthy, efficient source of nutrients, fats, and proteins. This means it also makes a perfect fuel for athletes looking for a natural alternative to being a “powder monkey.”

After leaving the world of Olympic running, Stember searched for a new foothold in life. He pursued a few business ideas and found success, but, no matter what he did, food kept calling him back. It became an obsession. He researched. He ate. He started conversations with master chefs and asked about their suppliers. Then he tracked those suppliers down.

At first, Stember was summarily rebuked — since he didn’t have the proper licenses or a restaurant. But he persisted. Growing more and more obsessed with sushi-grade fish, he cajoled the fishmonger from his favorite sushi restaurant into selling him fish directly. But Stember wasn’t satisfied just making himself a tasty meal. He started inviting friends to eat with him. He devised a menu, a lecture, and some music, and Sushi Belly Tower was born.

Suddenly, everyone wanted into Stember’s living room — he’d started a speakeasy for renegade sushi in New York. There was a password for the door. Live music filled the air while Stember prepped. Art was viewed and discussed. And, finally, Stember lectured while slicing fish, so that every diner knew what it was they were eating, where it came from, why that is important, and how their bodies would deal with the food they were consuming.

It wasn’t just about one delicious bite. It was about knowing the fish and appreciating it.

Phineas Ellis, Stember’s business partner, boils the whole Sushi Belly Tower experience down to this: “He [Stember] takes the world of art and performance, the world of athletics and efficiency, and merges it with food and dining and hospitality.” It’s this “in the kitchen with the chef experience” that set Stember apart and increased his renown.

Soon he and Ellis were traveling the world, doing pop-up versions of Sushi Belly Tower. Stember started looking at his life and what he wanted it to be. He reflected that “if it’s no longer about money, how would you spend your time? Because you can’t get that back.” Then he decided it was time to bring his style of cooking to the masses.

Stember and his team decided to open up a brick-and-mortar poké shop in Manhattan. He wanted to democratize his food by taking it out of the password-accessible lofts of NYC and introducing his concept to the public. With global fish stocks crashing, in no small part due to the proliferation of sushi worldwide, Stember’s goal is to “get sustainably sourced fish in front of people at an affordable price.”

From there, he doesn’t know where his ambitions will lead, but he’s not worried. After all, the man still has the spirit of a runner — always chasing, always moving forward. Stember followed a dream and put in the work, and now he’s blazing a new trail. He leaves us with these words of wisdom about our own bold pursuits: “Start small, and start now.”