Punching Up

josh lewinLewin (center, beige shirt) trades punches during his final training session before Thursday's fight. Photos by Emily Cassel.

When Juliet’s Josh Lewin steps into the ring for his Haymakers for Hope fight, he wants to raise more than just funds for cancer research.

Ask any server or chef: Working in the restaurant industry can wreak havoc on your mental health. There’s an insistence on perfection, despite the unpredictable environment. Your reputation is constantly on the line. Tension and tempers can flare up in the kitchen—and then, there are the long, unusual hours. “Taking time off wasn’t even an option,” restaurateur Jody Adams recently told the Boston Globe of her formative years in the industry. “It wasn’t considered. If you cut yourself and got stitched up, you went right back to work.”

The destructive behaviors that can emerge from that crucible of stress are well-known to Josh Lewin, who opened the doors to Juliet in Union Square with partner Katrina Jazayeri in February. When he took on his first sous chef position, Lewin found himself working 60-hour weeks while barely making enough to pay his rent. “I put myself under so much stress that I was drinking myself to sleep—with wine that I probably stole from the restaurant, because I didn’t have any money—every night,” he recalls. He says he gave up nearly a decade of his life to that cycle of substance abuse.

Eventually, the high school wrestler and former Marine realized his lifestyle was taking a toll—he was suffering from heartburn, insomnia, anxiety, weight gain. So as he and Jazayeri began building Juliet last year, he also started running. And in January, he started training to fight for Haymakers for Hope, an organization that raises awareness and funds for cancer research by asking first-time boxers to—quite literally—fight for a cure. In the last year, he’s lost 30 pounds while working to improve his overall mental state, and on Thursday, he’ll step into the ring to compete in front of a crowd of 2,000 at the House of Blues.

The Haymakers cause is important to Lewin, but what he really wants is for this fight to highlight the health issues that are so prevalent in his industry.

“I’m all about raising money,” Lewin says. “But what this is about, so much more than that, for me, is leading from the front in the restaurant industry and taking control of physical and mental health.”

That doesn’t mean he’s forcing his staff to get gloves and start sparring. But he does want to encourage them to be active, whether that means training for a marathon or trying to publish a short story. He hopes that they’ll follow his example, that they’ll take risks without fear of rejection—or at least, without letting that fear of rejection hold them back. “What you do should be difficult and meaningful,” he says. “You can always find excuses or reasons not to.”

josh lewin

“What you do should be difficult and meaningful,” says Lewin.

Of course, getting fit hasn’t made the long hours or stress that accompany running a restaurant disappear. The restaurant opens at 7 each morning; Lewin arrives between 5 and 6:30. He often works 14-hour days, sneaking off to Redline Fight Sports in Central Square to throw punches during slow hours. And he’s committed to getting his full six hours of sleep each night, which doesn’t leave him with a lot of downtime.

“A couple of times I’ve missed my six hours … and I’ve felt it in my face at the gym the next day,” he says, joking that boxing provides “very immediate negative reinforcement.”

Opening a restaurant while training for a fight has been a challenge, but in the end, Lewin says it’s been worth it. The discipline, focus and drive that have been required of him over the past few months have made him a better boxer—but also a better boss, a better businessperson. It’s made Juliet a stronger restaurant; when Lewin squares off against southpaw Antonio Tropiano on Thursday, his staff will be running the show in Union Square—a point that many fledgeling eateries don’t reach for many more months.

Lewin doesn’t know if he’ll continue competing after Thursday’s match. He’s always loved boxing, and he does enjoy the training. But this could be his first and last fight, and he says he’s going to leave it all in the ring. “I want to stand up proud in front of my staff,” Lewin says. “And even if I lose, I want to lose well … you can never guarantee a victory, all you can do is get ready and try to put on a good show.”

Regardless of the outcome, Lewin is both excited and proud to be making his amateur boxing debut in front of 2,000 people at the House of Blues—though he’s still hoping to bring this one home for Somerville.

“Antonio and I both walk away from this with a USA Boxing official record. I’ll either be 1-0 or 0-1,” he adds, laughing. “I’m really hoping I come out on top. I’ve gotta live with that for a while.”