How Not to Be a Wimp

The ranting, foul-mouthed, hilarious star of this Rio De Janeiro cooking show promises to turn Brazil’s 98 pound weaklings into hulks like him. From Piaui, Joao Brizzi profiles rapper-bodybuilder-turned celebrity chef Leo Stronda:

The smell of caramelized sugar impregnated an office inside a mall in Barra da Tijuca neighborhood, in the West part of Rio. Inside the oven, a tray filled with sweet potato wedges was overcooking, spreading a flan-like aroma throughout the room. The cooking experiment would be the theme of that afternoon’s taping of another episode of the show called Monster Factory (Fábrica de Monstros in Portuguese). The Youtube channel, dedicated to nutrition and lifestyle tips for bodybuilders, was created on April 2014 and has since then become a huge hit, with 1.1 million subscribers.

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The star of Monster Factory, rapper Léo Stronda, was late for the shoot. From the balcony in the studio where the crew waited, it wasn’t difficult to spot him once he arrived. After parking his purple Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 right next to the building, Stronda carried his 215 pounds– distributed throughout his 5’10” body, with huge biceps, triceps, chest, and no body fat – to the studio, which is decorated like any traditional cooking show set: it has a counter with a stove top and an oven in the back. With the exception of his gaudy golden watch, his hip hop hat and colorful sneakers, Stronda very much resembles the Incredible Hulk miniature that stands over the counter of the show.

The “buff-up” cooking style practice by Stronda is based almost exclusively on three ingredients: sweet potatoes, chicken and whey protein. The root vegetable provides energy and has a low glycemic index, decreasing insulin production and the accumulation of fat by the body as a consequence. The chicken is a source of lean protein, which is essential for building muscle tissue; and the whey, a protein isolated from milk, speeds up the gain of body mass when its consumption is combined with an exercise routine. By an irony of fate, “chicken” [“frango” in Portuguese] is the slang used by body builders to refer to the rest of humanity, us, the wimps.

On the episodes of Monster Factory, Léo Stronda either alternates or combines these three ingredients in a myriad of recipes. The whey has become an ice cream, and was once added to a cheesecake to give it body; the sweet potato has become pancakes and gnocchi, and is frequently associated with the chicken meat in dishes like chicken cottage pie, sweet potato rösti and empanadas. Stronda prepares his delicacies shirtless, covering only part of his chest with an apron.

Like a coach giving his athletes a pep talk, Stronda speaks emphatically and constantly beats the counter with his fists (the hits are usually followed by curse words), urging the spectators to buff up with the motto he frequently repeats: “Come here, Monster!”. But he also has kind words reserved for any wimps who might by chance be watching the show; while he cooks the recipes, he often screams “Hey, wimps, let’s grow!”.

“Every couple of hours, I never postpone it/A monster trains for one and eats for two/At the beach we shine, hit on women/You can come, I’m ready for anything”.

The verses of the song “Bonde da Maromba” (or “The Ripped Posse” in English), written by the show’s host, represent a turning point on his career as a rapper. Since the age of 14, he has been one of the lead performers in “Bonde da Stronda” (“Stronda’s Posse), a hip-hop duo that had some success among teenagers all over Brazil during the second half of the past decade. Created in 2006, the Posse started as a joke among friends, who would record songs at home using samples from famous hits and publish them on the internet. The lyrics are mostly about the life of a fictional character called “Playsson” (a sort of teenage playboy), which is filled with parties, booze, cars and women.

Despite the intense routine of shows, parties, drinking sessions, cars and women, Stronda never once stopped training. At the age of 23, he’s been working out ever since he was 14. He started working out because he considered himself too short and scrawny for his age. But it was only in 2012 that the world of body building entered his musical repertoire with the release of “The Ripped Posse”, an ode to the routine of diet and exercise. The song was a hit, turning Stronda into a sort of musical spokesman for this lifestyle. Two years after that, he would dedicate almost all of his time to the fitness world, when the “Monster factory” channel premiered.

Born in a middle class family from the State of Rio, Stronda justifies the “truth” of what he does using the arguments of a bona fide rapper: “I sing what I live. That’s rap”.

Episodes of the show are anywhere from five to twenty minutes. On the day of our interview, the “Monster McFries” episode took about a half hour to tape. During the shoot, Léo Stronda would joke around with the crew and bully the “butterballs” and “wimps” who might be watching the show. Since the recipe was fairly easy, he only had to cut the potato wedges, season them with salt, oregano and black pepper, and spread some olive oil on a tray with a spray bottle, which he uses all the time.

Jokes and homophobic or sexist comments are common in the episodes of the show. In one of them, which had fitness chef Pati Sens as a guest star, Stronda showed viewers how to bake a whey protein cheesecake. For the dough, they used crumbled up whole grain zero-sugar cookies. “Is the cookie any good?” [in Portuguese, “O cookie é bom?” can be interpreted as a graphic anal sex joke), asked Stronda, looking at his guest host. He waited some seconds for her reaction before slamming the counter with his fist once more, boastfully calling attention to his infamous joke. Later on, as he was about to pour into a mold the batter he had just taken off the blender, he maliciously asked Pati: “May I put it in now? Without fear?”

Stronda truly believes his comedic vein to be the secret behind the show’s success. How else would he get so many subscribers? “There aren’t a million ripped people in Brazil. They watch it for the jokes”.

João Brizzi Translated from Portuguese by International Boulevard