Custom Pairings: when food reflects lifestyle

Living in New York City presents a paradox for food lovers: You’re surrounded by restaurants, food carts and take-out spots on every corner, but sometimes the hustle is so all-consuming that you can barely enjoy any of that culinary abundance — even if you are a self-styled foodie. We spoke with four New Yorkers from very different corners of the city’s cultural landscape who, despite ambitious career goals that require non-stop schedules, still make time to enjoy the meals they need to fuel their diverse ambitions. Whether they’re looking for the comforting nourishment from their youth during late-night creative kicks or starting their day off with a protein punch, these four young tastemakers always find a way to sate their appetites with the many pleasures of the city’s palate.

Charlotte Dos Santos, Brooklyn

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Charlotte Dos Santos just dropped her debut album, Cleo, a dreamy conversion of jazz, soul and the very personal feelings of a true singer-songwriter. Growing up in Norway, Dos Santos said she’s been breathing music since a young age. “I thought it was normal to listen for musical intervals in my surroundings and find rhythms in people’s footsteps and write music out of birdsong,” she explained. “I learned later that my world is perceived differently than it is for many others.”

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Dos Santos wrote all the songs on Cleo while living in the United States over the past four years, first in Boston at the Berklee College of Music, and then in Brooklyn. She recorded most of the album there, in her apartment’s bathroom or her bedroom closet, depending on the desired vibe.

“I really love writing and recording at home,” she said. “I’m so immersed in the music when I’m writing, I sometimes forget to take breaks and then catch myself wondering why I’m so annoyed, or distracted — I can go a whole day without eating, and suddenly my stomach starts to growl.” Though she regularly has a steady stream of tea at the ready, Dos Santos learned that doesn’t quite take the place of the meals from her youth that keep her going – both physically and creatively.

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Dos Santos said she sometimes draws on her father’s Brazilian heritage for sonic inspiration, but her Norwegian roots typically drive her cravings. “In Norway, we have a very healthy diet,” she said. “I became a vegetarian pretty much immediately after moving to the U.S., and I have gotten my mother to send me a certain kind of Norwegian brown [goat] cheese. It’s divine!”

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Food also serves another purpose for Dos Santos. “I am a person who likes my space and peace and quiet,” she explains. When she can, she makes a point to cook meals herself, prep time that also helps her to remain calm, centered and focused on her artistic endeavors. “I love to cook. Though, I am just often a little too lazy,” she admitted.

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Lazy isn’t a word we’d use to describe Dos Santos, who, after years of work, is finally on the verge of seeing her dreams become reality. “Music is my life and always has been,” she said. “So regardless of the struggles it may come with, it is, in the end, always worth it.”

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Noah Neiman, Chelsea

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“I’ve probably eaten a billion eggs in my life,” said Noah Neiman. In the past six years, some of those eggs have fueled Neiman as he’s become a favorite fitness guru for the New York elite, a high-energy guest on shows like Good Morning America and Dr. Oz and co-founder and CFO (that’s chief fitness officer) at the boxing gym Rumble. It’s a nonstop lifestyle that has Neiman eating 5,000 to 6,000 calories a day to keep up.

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“Sometimes if I don’t have time, or just have to get extra calories down, I’ll down a raw egg,” he said. “Eggs are one of the most complete foods out there. You’ve got amino acids, fats, protein complexes, vitamins.”

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They also fulfill Neiman’s quest to consume one-ingredient foods. “If there’s a bunch of preservatives whose names you don’t understand, your body probably doesn’t understand them either,” he explained. To get to that astronomical sum, he estimates he’s eaten five to 10 whole eggs and eight to 10 egg whites almost every day for the past 20 years, since he first hit puberty and decided to hit the gym. A conservative calculation puts that at around 100,000 eggs — not quite a giga-oeuf, but orders of magnitude beyond what a typical human consumes.

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Still, that’s maybe the least impressive metric of Neiman’s irrepressible drive. He wakes up at 7 a.m. most days — 4 a.m. if he needs to get in extra hours of training — drinks a cold brew with a shot of espresso, then oversees nine classes of 60 people punching and sweating their hearts out in the Rumble studios. The boxing gym has backing from celebrity heavyweights like Sylvester Stallone and Justin Bieber, and Neiman said he’s seen about 20,000 people pass through in just its first five months.

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He doesn’t just have the financial support of Rocky — he’s got an underdog story of his own. “It’s like a soap opera tale, something out of Knots Landing,” Neiman said. He’d been interested in bodybuilding since middle school and had put in plenty of time at the gym. But when he got to Hofstra University on Long Island for college, fitness became a lifeline. “I got into a lot of trouble,” Neiman said. “But I got into martial arts, at a professional UFC fighter’s studio right near my school, and the discipline kept me grounded.” He graduated with an accounting degree and landed a great job in New York. “The only problem was I was miserable,” he said.

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Then disaster struck: His dad was diagnosed with cancer and his mom had a heart attack. He quit his job and moved home to Pittsburgh to take care of them. “I really lost my way for about a year, forgot what my life was about, forgot to take care of myself,” he said. “In the end, thank god, everyone was OK.” His parents recovered, and Neiman realized he never wanted to go back to accounting again.

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Rumble was born out of two of Neiman’s passions — boxing and strength training. But he isn’t surprised that it’s built up a huge following, especially among women. Demand is so high that he plans to expand beyond the current Chelsea location to NoHo and the Upper East Side in the coming months, and San Francisco and Los Angeles soon after.

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“It’s just fun,” Nieman said. “Our oldest response is fight-or-flight, but running isn’t really my thing — if you get scared, really anyone can run,” he said. “But not many people can fight, and that’s what we need to do every day: Get hit on the chin and keep going. That’s something very unique to boxing.”

Kathleen Tso and Vicki Ho, Chinatown

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Vicki Ho and Kathleen Tso started Banana magazine, their annual journal of “all things azn,” to fill what they saw as a big gap in the American cultural landscape. “A lot of the Asian-focused content was either very politically driven or only covered entertainment and celebrity — not something we personally would want to read about on a consistent basis,” Ho said. “So we created a publication that spoke to our interests and cast some light on Asian culture and talent.”

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So Banana was born, with a visual style and wide-ranging eye to rival any of the downtown cool kid publications on the market. The name Banana is a bit tongue-in-cheek: “Kathleen’s older sister helped us with brainstorming,” Ho said. “It’s actually a derogatory term that was used to describe us — especially during our childhood — as Asians that grew up in America. Our reason for using it is to reclaim that term and make it something celebratory. It’s about us growing up in America.”

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Tso said that Banana began among their inner circle. “It was very much a product of our friends coming together to put together a passion project,” she explained, adding that their only initial goal was to try and make an East Coast magazine about Asian arts and culture that looked awesome. But they were floored by the feedback they got from strangers once word got out. “By the second issue, we were working and collaborating with people we met through the magazine,” she said.

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“When we launched our third issue back in May with a weekend pop-up at Canal Street Market, the attendance completely blew our minds,” Ho said. “There was this whole network of folks outside of our immediate connections who wanted to meet and get involved.”

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Now Banana is getting big. Issue 003 is packed with letters on American politics from readers around the world, profiles of power players in Chinatown culture, an essay on the complexities of Asian-American identity, a window into China’s simmering hip-hop scene and a photo spread on the phenomenon of Asian Glow. It’s already close to sold out, two months after its release.

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Ho and Tso have found that their increasingly demanding schedules have inspired them to call upon the comfort food and eating habits of their youth. Tso recalled, “When we got older, my parents both were working, so they’d basically be like, ‘What do you want me to pick up?’” While her sisters usually requested Americanized dinners like pizza, Tso developed a taste for the Chinese food from a handful of local restaurants. Now, like her parents were then, she’s often too busy to prepare her own meals. “Any time I do cook, I would say 80% of the time it is Chinese food,” she added.

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Ho fondly remembers going into Chinatown in Manhattan to assist her father, a chef, in picking up ingredients they couldn’t find in her outer borough neighborhood. “I remember always looking forward to grocery shopping, because there were so many Asian snacks and junk food that you wouldn’t get anywhere in a Brooklyn bodega at all,” she said. “Even to this day, when Kathleen and I meet up to work on Banana, we almost always grab Asian snacks.”

“Except for Bagel Bites,” Tso added. Even tastemakers like the Banana girls have their guilty pleasures.