The party is in full swing, the drinks flowing, music pumping, but everyone is crowded around Michael Stember as he stands over a folding table, holding a massive Loch Duart salmon. Stember decapitates the fish and places the head next to his cutting board, like a trophy, as he slices the loin into sashimi. The crowd pulls out their phones as Stember takes a small blowtorch and cooks the ends, and then tops the fish with mushrooms.
As soon as he puts the plate down, chopsticks start stabbing at it. “If you haven’t noticed, this food is quite healthy,” Stember tells the crowd at one of the underground sushi parties he’s been throwing for the last six years. “My background is as an Olympic runner. I ran in the Sydney Olympics in the 1,500 meters. Everyone asks, Well, why a chef? Why a chef versus athletics? They were never separated. This is health food. This is an Olympic diet, shared in an artistic format.”
Stember had his first taste of sushi when he was 11 and just starting to run competitively. “I was like, wow—that’s fuel,” he says. “That’s pure fuel from the ocean.” Sushi soon became his fuel of choice, as he developed into one of the best middle distance runners in the country. As a freshman at Stanford, Stember says, he had a lot of meals at Fuki Sushi, an upscale place in Palo Alto. “I burned through my Pell Grant pretty quickly,” he says. “I was like, I’m out of money, I need another hookup.”
Growing up in Sacramento, Stember would sometimes make his own sushi. His older brother worked at a Japanese restaurant, and Stember would slip the chef some cash for fish, and he’d experiment cutting it himself. At Stanford, Stember decided to go right to the source—the guy delivering the fish around the back of the restaurant. “The first time I gave him 40 bucks and a track suit,” Stember recalls, in exchange for salmon.
Stember soon realized, though, if he wanted a variety, the minimum order would be too much for one person. So, naturally, he hosted a dinner party for his teammates, who shared the cost of the fish. Then he had another party, and then another. Word spread. “We were having some of the best fish coming in from Japan to the top 15 restaurants in Palo Alto—and my dorm,” he says.
Hungry for more Eats content? We've got a whole channel of it on SI TV, on Amazon channels.
After graduating, Stember became a professional runner. He won silver medals in the 1,500 meters at both the 1999 and 2003 Pan American games. He made the U.S. Olympic team in ’00 but failed to reach the finals in Sydney. After retiring from the sport around ’09, he worked in real estate and then solar energy, developing commercial solar projects, until, one day, he couldn’t pay his rent. He decided to throw a sushi party to help pay the bill.
Once again Stember started hosting culinary gatherings again, this time right out of his downtown Los Angeles apartment. Every time, people gathered around to watch Stember cut and prep the fish, and he’d feel like he did when he was running. “I get into a zone when I don’t even hear or see,” Stember says. “That’s when it’s fun.”
But about a year in, the police, responding to a noise complaint, knocked on his door, so he began taking the party on the road: to San Francisco, New York, and then corporate events worldwide. He’s cut sushi for Elon Musk and Cara Delavigne, Seth Rogan and Emily Ratajkowski. Bradley Cooper hired him to be his personal chef as he filmed The Hangover Part III.
The underground parties, however, will soon end. Stember is planning to legitimize his operation and open a restaurant in Brooklyn, hopefully by May 2018. It’ll be called Ponyboy, after The Outsiders character, and he’ll serve New American food and, of course, sushi. There he plans to host elaborate sushi dinners in the “Sir Roger Room” (as in Bannister), which will be decorated with Olympic memorabilia, a nod to Stember’s past life. [Editor's Note: This interview was conducted before Roger Bannister passed away on March 3.] And maybe even start a running club, too. “I’ll have an address. I’ll have hours. I’ll be there,” Stember says, wistfully. “It’s like I’ve been playing on the streets of New York, and now I’m playing for the Knicks.”