Columbia chef hits the road to raise money to feed children

The Baltimore Sun

When asked how long he’s been training for Chefs Cycle — a charity bike ride that will cover 300 miles in three days — Thomas Zippelli said: “You’re going to laugh when you hear my answer.”

The executive chef-owner of The Turn House restaurant at Hobbit’s Glen Golf Course in Columbia revealed he only started training a month ago for the physically demanding event that kicks off Tuesday in Santa Rosa, Calif. It started with a social media item he saw from Bryan Voltaggio, chef at Volt restaurant in Frederick. They had never met, but Zippelli was inspired.

“I saw a post from Bryan Voltaggio on Instagram about the ride and decided to do it” on-the-spot, he said. “An hour later, someone came to the restaurant to sign me up.”

Since then, Zippelli, 28, has raised about $3,200 toward his $7,500 goal, and is still accepting online donations in his name.

Though the ride hasn’t yet occurred, he’s already made plans in September to participate in another Chefs Cycle to be held in Charlottesville, Va.

The events raise funds for No Kid Hungry, a campaign to end childhood hunger in America that is operated by Share Our Strength, a Washington-based nonprofit founded in 1984.

“There are kids right here who go to school hungry,” Zippelli said.

The county public school system feeds eligible students breakfast and lunch through its Free and Reduced-price Meals program, but that’s not the case in every state, particularly in rural areas, said Adele Nelson, Chefs Cycle director.

“Our two main focuses are seeing that every kid gets breakfast in the classroom, which we call Breakfast After the Bell, and an initiative we’re starting to make sure they’re also fed in summer when school is out,” Nelson said.

The campaign, which has set a $2 million goal for the Santa Rosa ride, states on its website that 1 in 6 children face hunger each day in America.

Chefs Cycle was founded in 2014 by Jason Roberts, an Australian chef who was working in New York at the time. Six participants rode from New York to Washington to raise funds and awareness that year, Nelson said.

This year 200 bikers will ride in California, 80 percent of whom are chefs, with the remaining 20 percent either working in the culinary industry or with corporate partners, she said. Another 175 have registered so far for the Charlottesville ride.

Zippelli moved with his family from New York to Howard County when he was 12. His parents, Michael and Denise Zippelli, own a mattress company and reside near Glenelg.

Despite the snap decision to participate, the mountain biker and former varsity basketball player at River Hill High School, where he graduated in 2007, said he’s up to the challenge.

“I was already in decent shape, so I’m 100 percent confident I’ll complete the ride,” said Zippelli, who frequently bikes the 9-mile, often-hilly terrain from his Glenelg home to the restaurant on Willow Bottom Drive as part of his training.

Steve Vilnit, a Columbia resident who works for a seafood and produce distributor and has participated in the last three rides, is training Zippelli.

Vilnit took the new recruit on a 47-mile inaugural ride to assess his stamina.

“Even though Tom is a mountain biker, it was actually shocking to see how well he did,” Vilnit said.

“He’s a natural athlete with a lot of lean muscle,” he said. “And, as a chef, he’s used to being on his feet 14 hours a day with a 500-degree oven at his back. He knows how to suffer.”

Zippelli said he was inspired by his grandmother’s excellent Italian cooking in Pleasantville, NY.

“I started cooking meals for my family when I was in the third grade and I used to watch ‘Emeril Live’ and ‘Iron Chef’ on TV,” he said, recalling whipping up dinner for his parents and two siblings.

After graduating in 2011 from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., with a bachelor’s degree in food service management and an associate’s degree in culinary arts, he worked in New York City and Napa, Calif., before returning to Howard County in 2016 to buy a restaurant.

“We looked in Baltimore first,” he said of partnering with his father. “My dad helped me sign a contract in Hampden, but that didn’t work out. That’s when our real estate agent suggested we look at Coho Grill,” which is now The Turn House.

Zippelli said his first step in preparing to train for Chefs Cycle was to buy an Argon 18 bike, which was then laser-fitted to his 6-foot-5 frame at 90+ Cycling and Bike Shop on Red Branch Road in Columbia.

He then ordered special shoes, which were also fitted by the shop to ensure full leg extension to his bike’s pedals.

Next, he embarked on a nutrition and hydration regimen under Vilnit’s guidance.

Zippelli now consumes 4,000 calories a day, which he kicks off each morning by blending butter into his coffee.

He often follows that up with a rib eye steak and avocado for lunch — “to get the good fats” — and for dinner eats a huge salad with four hardboiled eggs along with a pork chop or more steak, or both.

He also mixes French grey salt, potassium supplements and electrolyte powder into his water — which he now consumes in higher quantities and at predetermined junctures — to replace nutrients lost through perspiration and prevent leg cramps.

Aside from training on a combination of terrains, Zippelli lifts weights, goes rock climbing and works out on a rowing machine.

“I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been,” he said.

Zippelli, whose Turn House is billed as seasonal, farm-to-table cuisine, said he’s always excited to start getting local produce again each spring.

He personally takes the restaurant’s compost to feed to the pigs at Mary’s Land Farm on Sheppard Lane in Ellicott City on Tuesdays and Fridays.

“We buy whole pigs from Mary’s Land, and this way we know they ate well,” he joked.

Zippelli pointed out that while he’s “definitely a laid-back person,” his demeanor changes in the kitchen.

“I’m pretty intense when I’m cooking,” he said, adding that he’s sure that personality trait will kick in during Chefs Cycle.

“No one is concerned at all that I’ll be able to do this,” Zippelli said. “If I set my mind to something, I make it happen.”

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To donate

Donations to the California ride will be accepted through June 30. Monies pledged on July 1 or later will be redirected to the Charlottesville ride to be held Sept. 25-27. To make a donation in Chef Zippelli’s name, go to chefscycle.org.

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