A Pastry Chef Iron Man? Only in Sonoma County

K-J pastry chef Robert Nieto balances a life of buttercream, chocolate and cake with serious endurance training.

Even Robert Nieto’s Facebook feed is exhausting. The pastry chef and endurance athlete’s frequent check-ins are punctuated by gyms and parks where he works out, airports documenting cross-country flights as a contender for the United States Pastry Team and, of course, drool-worthy desserts and chocolate sculptures he prepares at Kendall-Jackson winery each day as their in-house pastry chef.

Consider him the chocolate-covered Iron Man.

It’s not as ironic as it seems for Nieto, a competitive and driven 35-year-old who has risen through the ranks to become one of the country’s top pastry chefs. He sees both marathons and pastry competitions as fairly similar in the amount of time they take in preparation, training, mental focus and single-minded dedication.

“The first step is to think how to train for either one. Look at how much time you have and give yourself at least six months. I always start preparing early. It’s always a bad idea to jump in right away without giving it any thought,” he says. That and working out a highly detailed plan.

Patting his stomach, he says that he’s not quite in triathlon form right now, but just three months ago Nieto was finishing an Iron Man 70.3 race in Santa Rosa (half the distance of a full Iron Man race), after months of intense workouts and dietary restrictions.

His training regimen of the moment: 16-hour days preparing for the world’s most significant pastry competition, the 2020 Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie. Held every three years, the international sweets contest is a sort of intense triathlon of cakes, chocolate, ice sculptures and sugar creations that takes every bit as much endurance and mental strength as any race, he says. Nieto, who co-workers at Kendall-Jackson lovingly call “Buttercup”, was an alternate on the 2017 team.

So how does he balance a life of sweets and sugar with the rigors of endurance athletics?

Like most chefs, he also loves food, at one pointing tipping the scales at 285 pounds. At his lightest, when training for his first Iron Man in 2010, he dropped to 183 pounds, more than 100 pounds off his 6-foot frame. “That’s what I weighed in junior high –– it was weird,” he said.

He credits his love of competition for driving him. “I know what I have to do and I like challenging myself to see what I can actually do.”

Ready for Race Day

Just three days before tryouts for the Coupe, Nieto looks tired. He got to work at 7 a.m. to start weighing out ingredients he’ll take to the pastry training facility in Michigan.

He’s also made a cake, now sitting in the freezer, and is looking over his chocolate showpiece, a soaring collection of gears, flowers and orbs — all made of chocolate — representing the theme of “time.” Practice sculptures from past weeks look almost clumsy next to this version.

He’s flying out early, just to calm the butterflies, he says. Reciting a checklist, he goes over how he’ll pack the cakes and ingredients, what’s left to do, what he needs to do before Tuesday, when he competes for the single spot.

Like any athlete, its a ritual of visualization and mental organization that helps keep nerves at bay.

“It’s so exhausting, we all feel the pressure,” he said. Each showpiece has to be weighed exactly, at a perfect temperature, with balance in flavor as well as visual appeal.

“But looking over each delicate feature of his sculpture he feels ready for the tryout.

He wasn’t quite as prepared when, in 2009, he tried his first mini-triathlon, which didn’t exactly turn out well. Unable to swim freestyle, he did backstroke for the swimming portion.

“I’m not a good swimmer,” he said. “It was horrible the first time, but I thought, ‘I want to do that again!’ ” he said.

Got serious

After that, he got serious about training, entering a Vineman race after training hard with a coach and taking swim lessons at Santa Rosa Junior College.

“And that’s how it started,” he said.

Soon after, he began training for a full Iron Man — a consecutive 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike race and 26.2-mile run — in Tahoe. Completing it remains one of his proudest moments.

He attributes his success to both coaching and pushing himself.

“I was up at 5:40 a.m. training six days a week,” he said.

“I’d bike 100 miles and then do a 6-mile run,” he said. “My coach walked me through the process so I didn’t feel like an amateur.

He says about 15 percent of triathletes drop out before they complete the first portion of the race — swimming.

“It’s a big commitment, but it’s good to test your body,” he said. As a lasting memento, he has a tattoo of the Iron Man logo and towering ponderosa pines native to Tahoe.

“It was my first.” He also has a tattoo of the molecular structure of sugar on his arm.

After a last 14-hour day of training for the pastry competition in Santa Rosa, Nieto is trying to just let all the practice gel, and focus on his upcoming performance.

“At a certain point, you just have to let it go.”

Buttercup’s training tips

When thinking about doing an ironman/pastry competition, the first step is think how to train for either one. Look at how much time you have, and give yourself at least six months.

Don’t procrastinate on training. I always start preparing early. It’s always a bad idea to jump in right away without giving it any thought. When I started doing Ironman competitions, I hired a coach to walk me through the training and race-day process. This helped my confidence level on race day and I didn’t feel like the lost amateur.

The best way is to set a goal and work out a detailed plan that best works for you. It’s very important to have a schedule for each day of your workouts/practice sessions. By doing this you’ll have a better chance and great results. Be goal oriented, stick to your plan!

Also it’s important to get proper sleep. By having enough rest you’ll feel sharper and stronger and ready to do it again all over. Don’t sacrifice sleep for training; it doesn’t work out.

Stay positive! No matter what happens in the end, be proud of what you accomplished and what you went through to get where you are … the finish line! It’s mind over matter, and a positive outlook will carry you farther than a negative one.

Don’t burn yourself out! Mix some fun into your training. Keep it fun and light.