James Hunt Is on a Mission to Transform the Well-Being of the Restaurant Industry

James Hunt Is on a Mission to Transform the Well-Being of the Restaurant Industry

Hunt 4 Food and Fitness | @​​instagram.com/chefjayroc919

It’s a soupy, 98-degree morning on the outdoor turf deck at Durham’s O2 Fitness Club and James Hunt is wearing sweatpants and a hoodie—with the hood up. The arms of his aviator sunglasses are positioned outside his hood to keep it pinned in place while he works out.

“I’m like a horse wearing blinders,” Hunt explains. “My vision is blocked and I’m tuned in. All I see is my goals, my dreams, and my work ethic.”

Hunt is here to coach a client who recently enrolled in “Hunt 4 Food and Fitness,” a personal training and meal prep service Hunt created to enhance the health of restaurant workers.

Hunt 4 Food and Fitness rests on two tenets: 1) proper nutrition and physical activity are equally essential in leading a healthy lifestyle, and 2) if you take care of yourself, you’ll do a better job taking care of customers.

Hunt trains clients at three gyms in Durham—O2, Elevate Fitness and Wellness, and AB Fitness—and typically rents gym time by the hour so that clients aren’t obligated to buy their own membership. His meal prep service, which is strongly encouraged but not required as a supplement to personal training, provides 10 pre-portioned dishes to clients on a weekly basis. (Over the past decade, meal prepping has gained popularity in online fitness and clean-eating communities as a way to save money and reduce the temptation to eat out.)

Physically fit workers are better equipped for working long hours on their feet, he says—and, because physical fitness often leads to mental wellness, workers who partake in his program will be happier all around, a trait that may be reflected in the quality of their hospitality.

By promoting self-care, Hunt also hopes to steer workers away from substance abuse, which runs so rampant in the restaurant industry that it might be considered an occupational hazard. (New hit show The Bear, currently streaming on Hulu, is one particularly evocative depiction of the ways that hardcore restaurant kitchen environments can run workers into the ground.)

“[Restaurant workers] don’t have health benefits,” Hunt says. “We don’t have health care. So we have to be proactive.”

Before his family settled down in Fayetteville, Hunt spent the first decade of his life in Germany, where his father was deployed in the military. Hunt 4 Food and Fitness, he says, is in part inspired by the European approach to restaurant work.

“Over here, it’s a job,” Hunt says. “Over there, it’s a career.”

He recognizes that the American restaurant industry isn’t likely to experience a seismic shift anytime soon, but he wants to encourage local servers, bussers, food runners, and kitchen staff to embark on their work with the same eye toward sustainability that they would with a long-term profession.

“A lot of people are just passing through,” Hunt says. “But that doesn’t mean you gotta leave feeling like ‘I ruined my life, I drank and I smoked and I was depressed.’ It shouldn’t be like that. You should leave saying, ‘I’m a better person.’”

Hunt is intimately familiar with the highs and lows of the industry; the 42-year-old has been working in restaurants since he was 16 when he dropped out of high school and got a job flipping burgers at a McDonald’s in Fayetteville.

He spent the next 20 years working both front- and back-of-house positions at a string of corporate chains, and though he doesn’t go into detail about his life during that period of time, he emphasizes that he was “troubled.”

“I did all that knucklehead stuff,” Hunt says. “I grew up in the industry, so I’ve seen it all and done it all.”

Things changed in 2015 when he tore his Achilles tendon and was instructed to stay off his feet for several months. Out of a job, he decided to get his GED and enroll in culinary school at the Chef’s Academy in Morrisville, where he became gym buddies with a student named Paul Ooka.

Driven by the same ideals that now shape Hunt 4 Food and Fitness, Hunt and Ooka launched a pro bono fitness program for their fellow classmates that included Zumba, weight lifting, and full-body circuit classes. After Hunt graduated in 2017 and landed a job as a cook at Saint James Seafood in Durham—and Ooka moved away—he decided to continue the program on his own, getting certified as a personal trainer and adding a meal prep service when Saint James owner Matt Kelly offered him use of the restaurant’s commercial kitchen space.

Kelly also paid Hunt to offer discounted training and meal prep for the employees at all four restaurants he owns in Durham, though the 2019 gas explosion in downtown Durham that shuttered Saint James for nearly a year—followed by the pandemic, which extended the restaurant’s closure and incapacitated the industry at large—put an indefinite pause on that gig.

During the years that Saint James was closed, Kelly was still paying employees, so Hunt put all his energy into growing his business: designing scores of his own workouts; expanding his meal prep menu, cooking in a commissary kitchen that Kelly used to own; and building a social media following—which translated into a surge of new clients. On his Instagram, @chefjayroc919, he posts a stream of cooking videos, workout time lapses, and mini motivational speeches, most of which open with his trademark greeting, “What up, what up, it’s your boy, Jay Roc.”

When Saint James reopened in April 2022, Hunt resumed his position in the Saint James kitchen and developed a weekly routine of training clients in the mornings, working the line at night, and cooking meal prep in the kitchen on Sundays and Mondays when the restaurant is closed.

Hunt’s meal prep menu rotates from week to week, though each dish always includes six ounces of protein and four ounces each of both a starch and a vegetable. He describes his cuisine as international and farm-to-table; some of his current offerings include barbecue salmon with mashed potatoes and asparagus; turkey meatballs with a sweet potato and summer squash medley; and Jamaican-style curry chicken with rice, carrots, and bell pepper.

Folks who don’t work in the restaurant industry are welcome to purchase meal prep or training sessions, but they have to pay a higher rate—$110 instead of $99 for a 10-meal package and $20 instead of $10 for an hour-long training session—as Hunt wants to maximize the number of slots available for restaurant workers with tight budgets.

“We’re not in it for the money,” Hunt says. “We’re in it to change the world.”

Occasionally, he’ll even accept barter deals; when I meet him on the turf deck at O2, he’s coaching a client, Aaron Pankey, who films and edits Hunt’s promotional footage in exchange for free meal prep and training sessions.

Pankey works in the front of house at Saint James and says Hunt’s program enables him to be more energetic at work and more excited about the gym.

“When I think of working out, I usually just think of lifting weights and protein shakes,” Pankey says. “But every time I’ve trained with Jay Roc, I’ve done a different workout, and every time I’ve learned something new. Working with him has made exercising more fun.”

And fun it is. Hunt is all business when it comes to the workout itself—after putting on a Drake album, he references a giant leather-bound notebook filled with scrawled workout routines (“These workouts are like recipes”) and does each exercise (pushups, mountain climbers, sprints, squats, a slew of dumbbell routines that he created himself) alongside Pankey, occasionally fixing Pankey’s form and keeping a strict regimen of 40 seconds of activity and 20 seconds of rest—but his commentary is erratic and entertaining.

Remarks are sometimes humorous (Pankey is “from Wakanda”; I’m “Peter Parker”); sometimes serious (“Did you hear Brittney Griner pleaded guilty?”); and sometimes startlingly earnest: after he hands me his phone and tells me to film and post videos to his Instagram story—no need to run them by him first—he says, almost to himself, “Always wanted to be a star.”

In the near future, Hunt hopes to start working with James Beard Award-winning chef Ashley Christensen (who recently commented, “Killin’ tha game!!! I think you need to get me into shape, boss!” under one of his Instagram videos). Long-term, Hunt envisions franchising a two-story brick-and-mortar “one-stop-shop” with a gym on the top floor and a restaurant and meal prep service on the bottom. In these future businesses, he tells me, his mission for better customer service will come full circle: he’ll be equipping clients with tools that boost their hospitality but also leading a team of service workers in his own right.

Then, on the spot, he gives Pankey a pop quiz.

“The customer asks for what?” Hunt asks, hesitates, then answers his own question. “Nothing. You don’t wait until they ask for a refill—you give them a refill. You anticipate their needs.

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Follow Staff Writer Lena Geller on Twitter or send an email to [email protected].