Maria Hines is a dynamo both as a chef and restaurateur, running two wildly successful restaurants: Tilth and Golden Beetle. Perhaps the only other place she shines is on the face of a giant rock wall. She has a reputation in town for being a kick-ass rock climber, having been introduced to the sport by a fellow chef more than a decade ago. This week, we grabbed her for a chat while she was actually sitting--something she doesn't do often.
What got you interested in the sport?
It was actually my sous chef [at Earth & Ocean], Angie Roberts. She convinced me to go rock climbing with her one day and I thought it was just going to be something that I would go and do socially and try it once and be like, "Yeah, I tried this cool thing" and that would be that, but I totally loved it! It's very much like yoga in that sense where your body and mind have to work together in order for movement to occur. It's kind of nice and zen in that sense, and it's kind of meditative in that sense as well. If you're climbing outside, a lot of times you're terrified so your focused on making sure you don't get hurt and you don't die, and that's very meditative in its own way. You feel pretty alive when you know you have to be really safe and focused.
I'm still working on it! I go in and out of moments of meditation and moments of just like sheer flailing.
What's the hardest climb you've ever done?
Well, over the past few years I've really gotten into big wall climbing--it's a style of climbing where you're spending the night on the wall. I actually just got back last week from Yosemite Valley doing a big wall called Leaning Tower. We spent three or four nights on the wall.
I've seen pictures of that. It looks terrifying.
It is. It's totally terrifying. It's terrifying, but it's exhilarating at the same time. In any extreme sport, you're always kind of riding that line of pushing your body to its limits and pushing your mind to the absolute limit and at that point, it's terrifying because there's a certain level of danger involved, which also makes it very attractive and makes you feel super alive and so absolutely present because you're so completely engaged in that present moment. I think it's really hard, especially in the western culture, in our very busy lives. I mean, how often do you have five different things going on in your mind while you're doing something? I think it's precious and I really like to try and savor those moments when you can find something that just takes all of that way.
What's the scariest climb you've ever done? Any close calls?
Never. I've never had any close calls. I think the most epic-y thing that I've ever had--and it wasn't even really epic--just made for a long day. This was about six years ago. We finished a route in the dark, but every once in a while that happens. I think what made it epic was that we had one head lamp between the three of us so it was a little bit longer of a day. What really made it epic was that one of the friends I was with told his buddy we'd be done with the climb, back in Las Vegas, at 8 p.m., because we were out at Red Rocks. We were not back at 8 p.m. and hours were going by and his buddy started panicking. By around 1 a.m. we finished the route and were hiking out on the decent trail and noticed a search helicopter. They asked if we were okay andwe told them we were fine. I missed my Joel Robuchon reservation that night. That was the biggest tragedy.
I would say moderate. The learning curve for climbing is a slow learning curve and you have to do it a lot to get really good at it. The only way you're going to climb a lot and get really good at it is to get divorced, quit your job, and ditch the kids. Then, you can be a really good rock climber.
Is this your plan when you retire?
I'll probably do a mixture of things. [Rock climbing] is really hard on your body; it's really hard on your tendons, it's hard on your shoulders, it's hard on your hands. I'll always climb--I'll climb until I can't stand up anymore--but I'll probably mix in other things, like yoga. But yes, there needs to be a major climbing area within wherever I retire.
How often are you able to climb these days?
Outdoors, I would say two or three times a month. In the gym, I try to get to the climbing gym two or three times a week.
How would you say rock climbing has affected your job as a chef?
It's been a great way to create balance. Anytime you exercise and move your body you're healthier, right? You just have more oxygen going to your brain and muscles, which means you're going to sleep better and feel more relaxed. I'm a bit more chill when I'm [at the restaurant] because I get to blow off steam and exert that energy through exercising. It also clears my mind, and when your mind is clear you feel more alert and you have more space for creativity. I also run a couple of days a week.
What's your next climb?
In September I'm going to do another big wall, El Capitan.
How grueling is a big wall climb?
Our last climb, we were up at 3:30 in the morning and we were going until 10 p.m., so it's a lot of endurance and it's a lot of high-level focus and I think that's why I like it because it's like opening a restaurant. You're just pushing yourself so hard, you have to stay with every single moment and every single detail that's happening and I have this sort of personality that thrives in that environment.
What is your diet when you're preparing for a big climb?
Right now, over the past six months, I've been about 85-percent vegan. With climbing, it's basically a cut weight sport, because the less you weigh the harder you can climb and the easier you're going to be able to hold onto small stuff because you're lighter. The lighter you are, your hand-grip to weight-strength ratio becomes better. So, throughout the whole year, it's more of a lifestyle change where I'm eating an 85-percent whole food, plant-based diet. There's a lot of raw components to it, but it's mostly about choosing to eat farro and bulgar and quinoa and more of those grains than having pasta or bread and eating as many leafy greens as possible.
I am a sucker for chocolate and movie theater popcorn with extra butter. If I go out to eat I'm like, "Fuck the diet." I'm going to eat whatever. And when I'm in my kitchens and I'm tasting my cooks' food, I am tasting their food. I'll order the duck dish or the steak dish and I'll taste every component and go over it with them. Dairy, too. I love delicious cheeses and ice cream. I'm not going to skimp on any of that stuff. And alcohol. I drink a lot less alcohol now, so that kind of helps. But, yeah, it's definitely more of a lifestyle change diet now. I really don't eat past 5:30 p.m. so that helps out a lot, too.
A lot of it is bars and the reason why is because when it's warm, you can't have any foods that are going to rot on you. So, definitely bars and Tasty Bites. I don't know if you've heard of those, but it's packaged Indian food and it's packaged in this really thick foil material. It's an instant food that you add boiling water to, but they're actually really delicious cold. For breakfast I'll have some sort of granola bar sort of thing. Last time I made homemade granola and put in all of these different dried fruits and dried nuts. I try to come up with foods that are really lightweight and really calorie dense, because you don't want to pack a lot of weight when you climb. If you have a tiny bar that's 360 calories, you're getting a lot of bang for your buck versus the same number of calories in a bar that's twice the size.
I feel like it would be fun to go climbing with you because you would always have the best food.
I taste-test everything. I'll go find a particular brand and make sure it meets the nutritional qualifications, because you can't afford to have food that's not feeding your body because you're just depleting the hell out of your body; your dehydrating your body, you're not getting the calories you need, so anything you are taking in needs to be preciously full of nutrition so you can keep going. Once it meets the nutritional and size requirements, I'll go through and taste-test--which one tastes the best cold, which one has the best texture, the best mouth feel, the best spice level and all that sort of stuff.
You'd be the perfect consultant for some sports company.
It'd be awesome. It'd be awesome, because I've seen what other wall climbers eat and they're bringing things that fill them up that are really light, but they're eating things like tortillas and bagels and Chef Boyardee and there's no nutrition in that. You're just destroying your body and you're not replenishing it with anything that's going to recharge you. There's no protein or fiber in those foods.
I heard after a recent climb in California, you made your own homemade pasta? At the campsite?
You just need flour and egg and olive oil and water to make pasta, so I've made pasta, let my pasta rest. While my pasta was resting, I whisked up some chantilly and made a little strawberry shortcake. Bought some pound cake at a nearby store. It was awesome! We didn't have wine glasses, so we took our empty beer bottles, washed them out, took the labels off of them and filled them up with some California wine. It was pretty sweet. Oh, yeah, then I made a cucumber, tomato and dill salad. That was the first course. Then we had grilled zucchini, squash and red pepper with grass-fed New York steak and the pasta I made. It was like a Top Chef Masters challenge. It was a blast.