True Strength & Stand-Up Paddleboarding with Chef Makani Carzino

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True Strength & Stand-Up Paddleboarding with Chef Makani Carzino

Why do you run? Why does Michael Phelps swim? That’s what we take on in “Why I…,” our series in which we explore the passion of athletes — from all walks of life, at different levels and with diverse interests — in their own words. Finding your passion is key to staying motivated to live a healthy lifestyle.

We continue our series with Makani Carzino, chef and owner of Los Angeles’ popular Pono Burger as well as organic meal-delivery service Green Bunnies Kitchen. She’s also a dolphin whisperer (yes, it’s a thing) who seeks balance on and off her board.

As a native Hawaiian, I’ve been paddling outrigger canoes my whole life. My dad got me a four-man outrigger when I was 3 or 4 years old.

I raced competitively in high school as the steer woman. I’d get up before dark and meet my team down at the water to launch the canoes. Everything was so quiet and the sun was just peeking up over the horizon. We’d get out there with the dolphins and wouldn’t want to come back. We’d get to school soaking wet with no shoes.  

The dolphins are different here in Southern California, but have that same magic. I’ll strap my mask on my leash, start calling them — “Eee eee eee!” — and they’ll come over. I’ll get off my board and free-dive down to spin and play. It’s a lot colder than what I’m used to, so I don’t stay long.

Though I enjoy yoga, my favorite forms of exercise happen outside — usually surrounded by fun gypsy women who like to get out and go for it. I was raised on the Big Island; I never understood the concept of why you’d go inside a gym.

Stand-up paddleboarding means holding your own weight. To me, that’s true strength. You have to know your body in terms of reading a current or timing it when you’re coming in on a wave. You’re allowing Mother Nature to call the shots. I use my whole body — toes, neck, fingers — and balance in a way you don’t normally. It’s a different kind of strength than being able to bench press however many pounds.

That’s what’s happening on the outside. Inside, my soul is dancing, saying thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m one with the ocean and everything in it. I feel like a very small piece in a vast universe. It’s humbling and I think that’s good. Staying strong and humble is called ka’eo in Hawaiian.


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I didn’t get the memo that chefs are supposed to be 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds. It takes an incredible amount of strength and endurance to keep up with the 20-year-olds on the line. In the West Hollywood location of Pono Burger, our storage is downstairs. I probably walk those stairs 50 times a day, carrying kegs and 50-pound bags of sugar. Breaking down the fish is a workout. Hand-cutting fries is, too. We don’t own a freezer; everything is fresh. It’s a lot of prep, a lot of passion and a lot of love. And at the end of the day, that feels good.

Whether I’m working in the kitchen, stand-up paddleboarding, practicing yoga or hiking in Topanga, Malibu or Temescal Canyon, my goal is a balance of strength and flexibility. It serves me as a mama and in my kitchens. My 9-year-old, Phoenix, is like lightning and wind all in one. If I’m not feeling strong and whole and balanced, what am I going to bring to my crew and my community? I have to fill my cup first. I have to do the work so I have something to give.

—As told to Danny Bonvissuto

Age: 43
Makani is: Hawaiian for “wind”
Big believer in: Eating according to your dosha and blood type
Originally wanted to be: A neuropath doctor
First chef job: Spent two years on a yacht rigged for underwater photography
Exit strategy: If it’s not fun anymore, it’s time to go
Happiness is: A choice
Dad always told her: People are going to tell you who to pray to, what to eat and what to do. But it’s up to you. When it’s your time to go, no one’s going to stand in your place. Do it pono; do it your way.

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