Adrian De Los Rios’ light bulb moment — when a life-altering idea pops out of seemingly nowhere — was sparked by a congee plate.
The chef and bodybuilder was cooking at Umami, a temporary Asian restaurant that the owners of Travail Kitchen & Amusements popped up for a few months in the fall of 2013. He was beyond tired of fueling his workouts with a bland and tediously repetitive diet of chicken, rice and steamed broccoli.
But a congee platter, with 20 accoutrements? Bring it on.
“It was pickled ginger, and edamame, and all this healthy stuff, and I thought, ‘Why can’t I be eating like this?’ ” he said. “That’s when it first clicked that healthy food doesn’t have to suck. I turned to my friend and said, ‘We need to start a meal prep company for athletes. That’s our ticket.”
Let’s back up for a moment. Grappling with drug and alcohol addiction, De Los Rios, 28, found refuge in the discipline, stability and work ethic of both bodybuilding and professional cooking.
“Food saved me,” he said.
Out of rehab, he started cooking at an Italian restaurant in St. Paul, and then another. On an off night, he and a buddy dropped into Travail. “And I was blown away,” he said. “I’d never experienced food like that.”
He began volunteering in the Travail kitchen on his days off, and two months later he was offered a job. He stayed three years, a priceless on-the-job education in one of the state’s great restaurants.
Fast-forward to last winter. A gym buddy knew what De Los Rios did for a living, and he made a simple suggestion: Cook for me.
“He handed me a blank check,” said De Los Rios. “And I thought, ‘All right, I’ll bring him some meals.’ ”
He began by cooking out of his parents’ Blaine kitchen. Thanks to word-of-mouth magic, one client turned into two, three and more.
A major early milestone? He was hauling — via Metro Transit, no less — his finished product to the dropoff spot at the gym, using a big blue plastic cooler. Adding a second cooler was a clear sign that he’d doubled his output.
“I thought I’d arrived,” De Los Rios said with a laugh. “I realized, ‘Wow, I’m making something here.’ ”
After several months of 90-hour weeks — and making due in a less-then-optimal kitchen of a West St. Paul supermarket — De Los Rios approached his ex-bosses and mentors at Travail: Could he make use of their facilities during the restaurant’s off hours?
The answer was yes. “He’s one of us,” said Travail co-owner Mike Brown. “Anyone who’s worked for you, you think of them as a sibling.”
Soon the chefs that De Los Rios calls “the three kings” — Brown and partners James Winberg and Bob Gerken — were critiquing De Los Rios’ recipes, providing practical advice and getting the Travail brain trust solving all kinds of logistical issues, from online ordering to delivery. When a nearby storefront cafe became available, they bought it and, after a few months of renovation, installed Performance Meals.
“I’ve been so lucky,” said De Los Rios. “The guys at the Travail, they want you to succeed.”
Today, Performance Meals has a staff of seven who are turning out 1,000 meals a week for 150 clients. The demographics are surprising. Few are bodybuilders. The majority are women.
“Stay-at-home moms who are taking care of themselves, busy professionals, all ranges,” he said.
The microwave-ready menu — nutrition-packed, calorie-conscious — changes frequently. Early January offerings swing from pozole with braised chicken thighs, to flank steak fajitas with corn tortillas and rosemary-scented pork loin with ratatouille and garlic confit. (It’s reassuring to learn that De Los Rios eats a doughnut every day from next-door neighbor Wuollet Bakery. “And I go to McDonald’s,” he said. “But it’s all about balance.”)
There’s no formal structure. Meals can be ordered a la carte as singles ($10.95) or in packs of 10 ($105.95) or 20 ($200.95).
Back to that first gym buddy. He’s Fabian Hoffner. The Minneapolis attorney is currently buying three meals a day, six days a week, and said that he’s saving money — and improving his fitness level — by trading in his restaurant habit for Performance Meals.
“Adrian is where ‘healthy food’ and ‘tastes good’ meets,” said Hoffner. “I don’t call it ‘replacement meals,’ because to me, ‘replacement’ equals ‘missing something.’ I’m not missing anything.”