THE PARTY is in full swing, the drinks flowing, music pumping, but everyone is crowded around Michael Stember as he stands over a folding table, holding a massive Loch Duart salmon. Stember decapitates the fish and places the head next to his cutting board like a trophy, then he slices the loin into sashimi.
As soon as he puts the plate down, chopsticks start stabbing at it. "If you haven't noticed, this food is quite healthy," Stember tells the crowd at one of the underground sushi parties he's been throwing for the last six years. "My background is as a runner. Everyone asks, 'Well, why a chef versus athletics?' They were never separated. This is health food, shared in an artistic format."
Stember had his first taste of sushi when he was 11 and just starting to run competitively. "I was like, Wow—that's pure fuel from the ocean," he says. He developed into one of the best middle distance runners in the country, which led him to Stanford, where he regularly ate at an upscale place called Fuki Sushi. "I burned through my Pell Grant pretty quickly," he says. "I needed another hookup."
Growing up in Sacramento, Stember would sometimes make his own sushi. His older brother worked at a Japanese restaurant, and Stember would slip the chef some cash for fish and experiment cutting it himself. At Stanford he went right to the source—the guy delivering the fish through the back of the restaurant. "The first time," Stember recalls, "I gave him 40 bucks and a track suit," in exchange for salmon.
Stember soon realized, though, that if he wanted a variety, the minimum order would be too much for one person. So he hosted a dinner party for his teammates. Then he had another party, and then another. Word spread. "We were having some of the best fish coming in from Japan to the top 15 restaurants in Palo Alto—and my dorm," he says.
After graduating, Stember became a professional runner. He won silver medals in the 1,500 meters at both the 1999 and 2003 Pan American Games. He made the U.S. Olympic team in '00 but failed to reach the finals in Sydney. After retiring from the sport around '09, he worked in real estate and then solar energy until, one day, he couldn't pay his rent. So he threw a sushi party to bring in some cash.
He started hosting more events, right out of his L.A. apartment. Every time, people would gather around to watch Stember prep the fish, and he'd "get into a zone," like he did when he was running.
Then about a year in, the police knocked on his door, so he began taking the party on the road: to San Francisco, New York and then corporate events worldwide. He's cut sushi for Elon Musk and Cara Delevingne. Bradley Cooper hired him to be his personal chef as he filmed The Hangover Part III.
The underground parties, however, will soon end. Stember is planning to legitimize his operation and open a restaurant in Brooklyn. There he plans to host elaborate dinners in the Sir Roger Room (as in Bannister), which Stember will decorate with Olympic memorabilia, a nod to his past life. And maybe he'll even start a running club too.