Think making dinner for four picky eaters is tricky?
As the U.S. Ski and Snow Association’s head chef, it was Allen Tran’s job to cook for members of Team USA in Sochi—no easy feat when you consider he was feeding world-class athletes who require a huge number of calories and follow strict, varied diets to maintain peak performance. (What, did you think they were really eating McDonald’s and Subway, like in the commercials?)
“The key is to provide a balance of whole grain carbohydrates, lean protein, colorful fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats like olive oil and avocado,” says Tran, who’s also a registered dietician and has master’s degrees in Sports Nutrition and Exercise Science. And he also had to cater to the athletes’ tastes, dietary restrictions (gluten-free!), and superstitions when stocking their fridge, a challenge further complicated by which foods were accessible in Sochi.
So what made it into Team USA’s fridge and pantry? Think sports-world faves like Greek yogurt, grilled chicken, and beet juice, suitcases of Sriracha that somehow made it past the TSA, and cold pizza bagels one racer swore would get him to the finish line faster.
Here, Tran gives us a post-games look into the athletes’ Sochi fridge, and their daily fueling rituals.
I’m dying to know what the daily menu for the athletes is. What did a typical breakfast, lunch, and dinner look like? Breakfast would be oatmeal, Greek yogurt with fresh berries, and hard-boiled eggs. A post-morning-workout snack is almonds and a banana, while lunch would be veggie and beef chili, cornbread made with Greek yogurt, and spinach salad with avocado. Then a post-afternoon-training snack would be chocolate milk, string cheese, and applesauce, while dinner is something like grilled jerk chicken, roasted plantains, and bell pepper, zucchini, and eggplant kabobs.
How do you cater to the dietary requirements of athletes? With athletes in totally different ski and snowboard sports, and athletes hailing from all parts of the USA, we have different palates and occasionally different dietary restrictions, in particular gluten-free and other food allergies. I have to provide the same level of food to these athletes but accommodate their conditions, so I try to build in recipes that happen to be gluten-free, like polenta, quinoa, sweet potatoes, and brown rice.
That’s awesome. You were able to find quinoa there? Were there any special food requests you had to truck in, or certain items you didn’t have access to? Although I come from a fine-dining background, the athletes ultimately crave simple food. Anything Mexican is huge hit, and dishes like fajitas are universally loved. I knew that spices and seasonings would be hard to find in Russia, so I brought several suitcases full of them, including chili powder, garam masala, curry powder, chipotle pepper, and other seasonings for our highly flavorful American foods. Our athletes love spicy food, and Russian food is somewhat bland, so we blew through our shipment of hot sauce.
Wow. I’m sure a TSA agent was pretty taken aback by that. What’s the biggest challenge of cooking healthy at a huge volume? The kitchen is running all day, and we are serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner—that’s pretty unusual. Our team of four USA chefs work a staggered schedule, which starts at 5:30 a.m.—the Alpine athletes start training quite early and need to get on the hill at sunrise for on-snow practice. And all the other sports have different days and times when they get access to the ski hill, so the chefs are working all day to accommodate when the athletes come in and out for meals. We also provide a recovery station with protein shakes, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, water, juice and Powerade, energy bars, almonds, cereal, and yogurt. We go through the day with only an hour between meals to break down and set up for the next meal and end the day at 10 p.m. We are serving 50 athletes plus 50 staff per day.
I spot almond milk also. Did you find that in Russia? Yes, we did find almond milk in Russia. The actual dairy products are great here, though. In particular the smetana, sour cream, is lovely, so we incorporated that as much as possible in recipes such as polenta, baked goods like zucchini and banana breads, sauces, etc. We have a translator and official hotel staff that purchase food commercially, so we have access to many American foods like avocados, salmon, and fresh produce.
What is the strangest thing someone has requested there? Many athletes have a routine either for good luck or superstition, and one of our alpine racers loves mini bagel pizzas served cold before races as part of his routine. Also, although it’s common now and has a performance rationale, beet juice for endurance athletes was very popular. —Jamie McKillop
For more information, visit www.ussa.org