Work Out, then the Wok

Perhaps you have seen him, the Zen master of Zen Palate, doing his daily exercise routine in the middle of Midtown Manhattan’s morning rush.

He is Sam Wong, 60, and he has the robust physique of an old-time strongman.

Just before 9 a.m. every workday — he has Friday and Saturday off — Mr. Wong stakes out the same patch of sidewalk on the southwest corner of Ninth Avenue and 46th Street outside Zen Palate, the restaurant where he is a chef.

The area smells of kitchen grease and car exhaust, and the gum-pocked sidewalk is littered with cigarette butts. It was already heating up on Tuesday when a shirtless Mr. Wong stepped out of the kitchen door.

He kicked off his sandals by the curb and, clad only in shorts, began an exercise routine that has become a neighborhood ritual. With the city bustling around him, he started off with some stretching, then arm-swings, then squats, often using the street furniture, like streetlights and benches, as his gym equipment.

“I came up with it myself — it’s my own routine,” Mr. Wong said, in Mandarin, his clean-shaven head already beading with sweat. “You have to take care of yourself.”

“I have no other time to exercise, so I have to use whatever time I have,” he said. “I steal a little time away and then go back to the kitchen.”

Mr. Wong, who does his street-corner routine year-round, takes the subway in from his apartment in Elmhurst, Queens. Arriving at the restaurant around 7 a.m., he starts the soups for the day: won ton, miso and sweet and sour. Then, before the other chefs arrive, he steps outside as the morning sun climbs over the skyscrapers.

On an overturned bucket, he sets out his radio tuned to an AM station featuring Chinese talk radio with poor reception, lending another dissonant layer to the street soundtrack.

On Tuesday, traffic barreled down Ninth Avenue, and commuters on foot rushed by. Some said hello to Mr. Wong, as did some dog walkers and motorists on West 46th Street stopping at the light. Others stared as they passed, or yelled comments, to which he seemed oblivious.

One moment, with eyes closed, he was in a cone of concentration. Then he was back pacing the hot pavement in his bare feet, greeting the street sweeper and the hot dog vendors wheeling their carts down the street.

Mr. Wong, who speaks limited English, nevertheless conducted mini-conversations and exchanged pleasantries and updates with passers-by. The social interaction seemed to fuel his workouts, which he said was critical for staying in shape for the long days slinging big pans and woks on the stove.

“He makes the street his gym,” said Cat McGuire, a palm reader who lives next to the restaurant, stopping to say hello. “He gives the street a community feel.”

Mr. Wong, who came to the United States in 1986 from Malaysia, has worked at Zen Palate for 20 years, he said. He and his wife, Wendy, who works in a laundry, have put their son, Daniel, through New York University and are putting their daughter, Emily, through Hunter College, he said.

On Tuesday, Mr. Wong began by facing up toward the sun and massaging his face, particularly around his eyes, which helps keep the skin firm, he said.

Then he pulled out two yellow bouncy balls and, like a juggler, began working them into his routine. Eyes closed, he repeated short, rapid tosses, a practice that helps keep his mind agile, he said.

Then he strapped on a broad leather weightlifter’s belt and moved into more strenuous exercises, his body glistening with sweat.

As the city roared to cacophonous life around him, Mr. Wong dipped into crouches, kicks and arm-swings, as if dancing with the collective movement of the sidewalk crowd.

He stretched at the horizontal metal bar that serves as the restaurant’s delivery bicycle rack. During his deep knee bends, he monitored his form in the reflection in the restaurant windows.

Then he approached a short concrete column near the curb and placed a folded washcloth on it, as a pad for his forehead, as he balanced himself on his head and tiptoes and flapped his arms.

After that, Tommy Prokopowicz walked over with his two pugs. Mr. Wong gave him a slap on the belly and invited him to join in, like the neighborhood Jack LaLanne.

Then Landon Finnerty, a stagehand who lives nearby, stopped to say good morning.

“It goes back to watching the old karate movies where the guys would hold the buckets of water for hours,” he said. “It’s very encouraging. It makes me want to join him.”