The Life of a World Tour Team Chef
For many who follow pro cycling, and maybe those who don’t, there’s a curiosity about what it is, exactly, that riders eat. How riders get the most out of their food; how some of those incredibly lean builds are maintained yet well-fueled to complete the long days on the bike; how much food is needed, per meal, and how to know what’s enough.
There’s no one better to ask than a World Tour team chef, often the masterminds, and always the chief collaborators, behind putting the good fats, proteins, and nutrients into the riders’ bellies and bodies several times a day. We were able to pull Omega Pharma-Quick-Step‘s chef, Tom Caubergs, out of the (mobile) kitchen – to sit down and answer some questions about what it is like to be a pro cycling team chef, how he knows what’s best for his riders, and what his day-to-day looks like.
Tom is in his second year working for Omega Pharma-Quick-Step, a job he landed through Kookeiland‘s Chefs on Tour program. When not traveling with the team, he lives in Belgium, works as a police detective, and remains with Kookeiland as a cooking class instructor (specializing in tapas) and a catering chef. In switching mindsets to be a team chef, he quickly learned to adapt his cooking style, replacing calorically-heavy ingredients for healthier and less fatty ones – like using yogurt instead of heavy cream to make chocolate mousse. For menu-planning, Tom works with the Bakala Academy at the University of Leuven in Belgium to map out the riders’ dietary needs and incorporate specific items into daily recipes.
For example, on their recommendation, every day Tom makes a fresh vegetable and fruit juice that contains the same amount of vitamins and minerals as 400 grams of vegetables. In addition to consulting with nutritionists, Tom spends much of his time following and researching current trends in sports nutrition. When he finds a new ingredient that he’d like to introduce, he goes through a vetting process: first he needs the team doctors’ and nutritionists’ approval, then he tries the ingredient in new recipes at home. If all goes well, the ingredient then becomes part of the team arsenal of recipes. This year he introduced coconut oil and Gula Java. Coconut fat, medium-chain triglyceride or a short-chain fat, is used in cooking and considered much healthier than many other cooking oils. Gula Java, used in smoothies and deserts, looks like brown sugar, but is made from coconut flowers and has a much lower glycemic index than refined sugar (35 to 68, to be exact).
What does a normal day look like during a Grand Tour? I get up every morning very early. We go to the truck and start preparing the mash, the oatmeal with soya milk and water – it’s what they eat every morning. When the riders arrive, I make pancakes, omelets or sunny-side eggs, or whatever they want. After breakfast, we go to the next hotel, which is normally about 200 kilometers away. When we arrive, we have lunch and then I take a look in the kitchen at the hotel. I say hello to the chef and I get the ingredients for dinner. I take the ingredients to the truck and then in the afternoon I start preparing the meals—the entrée, the main dish, and the dessert.
So, you normally have a mobile kitchen, or truck, that you use in addition to the hotel kitchen? The first days the truck couldn’t go with us to Corsica, so I had to cook in the kitchens of the hotels. After that, my own kitchen came, and it’s easier because you can find all the stuff you need in the kitchen and you’ve got all your materials and habits and it’s easier to work in.
Once the stage is over each day, what happens? When the riders come back from the race, they get a smoothie, fruit salad, watermelon, or rice milk. They need the fruit for the vitamins and the minerals for replenishment. And the smoothies are easier to consume. But, if it’s cold, sometimes we’ll make a pudding. In the morning we also prepare tortilla wraps or sandwiches to take with them, and when they arrive on the bus [after the stage] they can start eating right away. When the riders arrive in the hotel, it takes another 2 – 2 1/2 hours because they have to go to the massage or shower, and then they come to the restaurant for dinner. We prepare a little buffet so they can serve themselves. Some riders want particular food, like Tony Martin, who every evening wants to have shrimp scampi, or like Peter Velits, who doesn’t eat fish. So every rider has his own individual needs and we try to make it good for everybody.
How do you know how much to make of any one thing? It’s important that they have their proteins, but the amount of fish or meat cannot be too much. It’s not that they have a steak weighing 300-400 grams… it’s a little portion. I buy a maximum of 200 grams of meat per person for each meal. The most important thing for the riders is that they eat a lot of carbs, a lot of rice, pasta, or potatoes. It’s not that I decide: you can have 100 grams of pasta and [the other guy] can have 200 grams – they can serve themselves and they know what they need and how to fuel their body best.
What’s your favorite thing about your job? My favorite thing is that you get to travel around a lot and go to wonderful places. What I also like is the appreciation from the riders. They’re very happy that they have their own team chef, and I try to make very good food for them every day and they appreciate that, which gives me a good feeling.
What’s the hardest part of the job? The toughest thing is that you get very tired. You get up very early, every morning, and you go to bed very late. It’s always after midnight when we go to sleep and at half past six we have to get up to start working. So at the end of the four weeks, you are very tired.
What do you find most interesting about your job? The friendship; you work together with all kinds of different people, you go to different hotels, you work with different people in their own kitchens, or sometimes we work with other team chefs. It’s always nice to share how you do things and learn from other chefs, and help each other. If another team chef comes to me, and says, Oh man, I’m out of pepper, can I borrow some pepper from you? I say sure, and maybe tomorrow, l need some cinnamon, and I can get it from him.
In talking about what he likes to make most for the riders, Tom quickly answered, “Healthy desserts,” and remarked with a smile that if you have a good dessert after dinner, you always remember that meal. As for preparing the meat course, Tom prefers grilling or baking as the best technique – brushed with olive or coconut oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper. Asked for any other trade secrets, Tom leaned in a little closer, looked me straight in the eye, and told me the cardinal sin that a team chef could commit, “You absolutely never, ever fry anything.”
And, with that, bon appetît – or rather Alstublieft!