The voice of Erin Fairbanks can be heard all over New York City. The Michigan-born Executive Director of Heritage Radio Network hosts and moderates numerous shows on the channel. When she's not working on Brooklyn's famous food radio, she can be found making delicious meals herself. In between talking and cooking, Erin trains Muay Thai at Renzo Gracie Academy in both Midtown, Manhattan and Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As a female athlete with a very busy but fulfilling career, Erin highlights that you can do it all and still have fun.
PA: Where did the passion for food come from? How does eating well and enjoying what you eat play an important role in your life?
EF: I am the oldest of six and growing up my mom was the kind of woman who made everything from scratch, bread, yogurt, you name it. We had full breakfast every morning, generously packed lunches, and family dinner each night. Food is still her primary way of bringing us together. My dad was a big hunter and fisherman, so our table was always filled with wild game, salmon from Lake Huron, or Blue Gills from one of the smaller inlet lakes.
I trained for a number of years in some amazing professional kitchens (Savoy, Gramercy Tavern) and today I feel lucky that cooking is something I do well and really enjoy. I spend a few hours every weekend prepping meals for the week and I love cooking for people; like my mom, it is one of my primary ways of showing affection.
Beyond sustenance and a lot of pleasure, cooking in the city keeps me connected to a wonderful network of farmers and food producers. At the farmers market each week I get to track the season’s progress. I always walk through end to end, getting a sense of who has what, how far ahead the Jersey growers are compared to my New York State favorites. You can tell by taking a slow walk, smelling, touching, and chatting what is coming in and out of season and what is especially good this year.
I have to be careful at the market because my eyes are always bigger than my stomach and I get excited thinking about all the things I can make. I try to bring only as much cash as I plan to spend, because I will reach into my pockets till they are empty and fill my arms until they are overloaded.
You are an athlete at Renzo Gracie Academy and you're well-known for riding your bike around Brooklyn. When did your journey in athletics begin?
I have always been an athlete, both of my parents are very active and sports were always the primary activity out side of school. I was always tall as a girl and wanted to be bigger and faster and stronger. To this day, every time I chat with my dad he asks me if I’ve been working out.
As a kid I played little league and of course, swam all summer. Our backyard definitely had a baseball diamond worn into the grass. There were a lot of kids in the neighborhood and in the summer we were not allowed in the house outside of mealtime. One of my favorite games was called “Sargent”. It was basically me running drills with the neighborhood kids: we ran laps, did sit-ups, and pushups—kind of like warm up at Renzo but with a bunch of grade school kids.
I started playing basketball and volleyball in the 4th grade and then also ran track in high school. I was an eleven-letter varsity athlete, captain of my basketball and volleyball team, All-State in both. I loved volleyball, the high school season in Michigan was in the winter and I played club ball as well in the spring, during the track season. I thought seriously about playing in college and was recruited by a handful of division II schools, but decided instead to pursue my degree at the University of Michigan and I was not a strong enough player to be competitive in their program.
At Heritage Radio Network, you are the Executive Director. In what ways do you incorporate your love for various kinds of food? Are there ways you can combine your athletics with work?
Well food is easy, or hard really. It’s important for my work that I stay up on what is happening in the food world. That means eating a lot, attending a lot of food or beverage oriented events, and the like. Also, the radio station is literally in the middle of a Roberta’s (the famous Brooklyn pizza joint). I spend my days reading, thinking, and learning about food and the food system.
Honestly, training is a place I go to recharge, de-stress, and nourish myself so I can perform better in my job. I often invite folks to join me and lately have been making a lot of workouts dates versus meeting up for drinks. I would love to find a host interested in talking about food and athletics---so, guys, call me.
Do you eat in a specific way when you are training? What are some your favorite go-to meals?
Producers are always stopping by the offices to drop off samples, talk shop, and do tastings; it can be a challenge to balance tasting vs. eating and to make sure I’m not over-indulging. I have found the best way for me to feel great training is to pay more attention to the timing of my meals. I try to eat at the roughly the same time during the day and eat smaller but more frequent portions.
I often go out in the evening for work, so I always eat a healthy breakfast and pack a lunch. I am a big fan of simple one-pot meals; this year I have been making a lot of different types of stews, and hearty soups. In the summer I do a lot of veggie bowls and topped with a few meatballs or kibbeh.
Who has been your favorite guests to work with at HRN?
I am lucky to get a chance to sit down with so many amazing leaders. Most of my favorites have been part of the series we do called Evolutionaries. In these 20ish-min pieces we profile some of the biggest thinkers in food. I’d recommend checking out: Joan Dye Gussow, Eric Ripert, Ariane Daguin, Marion Nestle. One of my all-time highlights was having Wendell Berry join us.
You have to balance a variety of commitments. How do you do manage to be awesome at so many different things? In what ways do they work together?
Ha ha, I love this question. One of the things I love so much about New York City is how alive it is, with so much to do, and so many amazing people. It’s inspiring and energizing. I read a great book early this year called: “168 Hours, You Have More Time Than You Think”. We all have the same 168 hours in a week and we get to choose how we spend our time.
I am a big planner. I sketch out my schedule about six weeks at a time and then do a deeper dive on a weekly basis. I really thrive on routine so I work hard to give myself as much of that as I can. For me, routine includes saving a lot of space for fun—I am that person who plans, unplanned time. I really think if you’re not careful the city will eat up your days—I want to be the one driving my time and for me the only way to do that is to plan and prioritize.
I think the other big thing, for me, is not watching TV. I don’t own a television. I don’t have Wi-Fi at my apartment.
In what ways do you feel empowered by training? How does it affect you at work or in other parts of your life?
I have really loved getting better at taking direction in my body. For me, Muay Thai feels a lot like yoga---a practice built on a few simple movements that unfold into endless opportunities for combination and engagement.
I have been training lately with (K-1 and MMA female fighter) Daria Albers, and something she said really struck me, to paraphrase: “There is nowhere to hide on the mat, your true personality comes out, the things you’re dealing with. If you're an aggressive person, a mean person, a gentle person—you can’t hide.”
I am often surprised by how other things in my life show up on the mat. If I am feeling confident and relaxed in other parts of my life—I am like that in training. If I am not trusting myself or feeling anxious—that shows up too. Often I find my body knows stuff before my mind does and if I pay attention, training helps point that out.
You’re a Midwest gal. What opportunities have you found in NYC for exercise that you may not have had back home? What do you miss most about home?
Well, Muay Thai is the most obvious. The thing I miss most about back home, this time of year in particular, is being across the street from the lake—at home we never had AC you just went down for a midnight dip to cool off, getting in and out of the water was a thing you could do throughout the day—I loved that. In the winter it was fun too: cross-country skiing, sledding, snowmobiling. You had all the gear and there was a real culture of getting outside. New York has such a strong inertia—it’s actually not that hard to hop on a train and go for a hike but the culture here doesn’t really support that.
Finally, what advice would you have for other women who want to accomplish what you have?
Take the time to figure out what you want to do, what you really desire in your heart of hearts. Write it down and share it with people. New Yorkers are some of the most connected, smart, and helpful people in the world. I have really found the better I am at articulating what I’m looking for, the more great stuff comes into my life. It can feel scary or vulnerable to put yourself out there like that, but if you don’t share your aspirations with folks, they don’t think of you when opportunities that might be great for you come their way.
Photos courtesy of Erin Fairbanks. You can listen to erin on a multitude of shows at heritageradionetwork.org; follow along with her adventures on twitter & instagram at @erin_fairbanks