The feeding frenzy
SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- Let's create our own little chef's nightmare, shall we? She's allergic to nuts and gluten. Milk upsets her stomach, and she's just this side of diabetic. She needs lots of protein -- but can eat only well-cooked Halal meat.
Now imagine she's a champion swimmer. What are the odds she'll be able to find a meal that's healthy (imperative), culturally appropriate (a must) and tasty (hardly a small matter)?
Give the girl a plate. At the Olympic Village in Sydney, they're up to the challenge.
They're serving palates from Earth's every corner this month in the athletes' dining hall. They're purveying paella, giving out goat vindaloo, accommodating congee cravings. They're toiling for the health and happiness of every competitor, from lacto-ovo-vegetarians to kosher-minded Jews, protein-starved carnivores to carb-conscious sprinters.
In the densest concentration of gastronomic globalism this side of the U.N. cafeteria, months of preparation and menu planning are ensuring that no culinary obstacle gets in the way of Olympic competitors' stomachs, muscles and states of mind.
"It's overwhelming," enthuses American high-jumper Erin Aldrich of Austin, Texas, who gets to choose from 900 items a day.
Get one of the chefs talking. He'll tell you about the Malaysian athlete, a Hare Krishna, who picks up raw vegetarian fare for her daily meal. And the triathlete who showed up with her own energy-boosting cake mix and some instructions: Thirty minutes, 300 degrees.
Nobody minds. They know who comes first. "We're here to support their efforts," says American Doug Bradley, an executive chef from Philadelphia-based Aramark Inc., which serves 15 million people daily in stadiums, colleges, hospitals and national parks.
And you'd need a company that thinks big for this one.
Consider this bellyful of Olympic-sized numbers: Forty-seven chefs from 15 nations (to make sure the food tastes authentic) overseeing a staff of 1,200, serving 1,540,009 meals over 33 days -- 6,000 an hour, 48,000 a day. A 1,500-item menu of vegetables, rice, fish and meat by the ton -- and 96,000 pieces of fruit daily.
And at the center of it all, under a giant white tent, 11,000 of the world's athletes and 8,000 of their coaches -- many finicky eaters.
No matter. The staff may be stirring food with oars back in the kitchen, but this is a far cry from your third-grade school lunch; no forlorn "fish on bun" here.
For the adventurous Olympian, it offers the potential of geographic theme dining, too. Perhaps some papaya jicami slaw before your archery finals? Or maybe Cuban adobe pork to cap off a rough day of breaststroke. White potato or red? The mind boggles.
Sunday's menu alone offered dishes from calamari with bok choy (Chinese) to chicken cannelloni (Italian), split pea dahl (Indian) to udon noodles (Japanese). There's even an "international spice station" for athletes who prefer "intensely flavored dishes."
"The comfort food thing is very important," Bradley says. "If you're gearing up for an event, you want food that you recognize. You want something that came from where you come from."
Aramark, which has been involved in Olympics since 1968, is getting most of its ingredients from Australian suppliers. Its Australian partner, Spotless Services Ltd., bills this as the largest food-service operation ever. And it seems to be going over well.
"The food is better than at Atlanta," says He Huixian, spokeswoman for the Chinese team.
The caterers worked with University of Sydney nutritionists, who developed a food kiosk and Web site they launched in July so athletes could build their own menus and find favorite dishes. The options are myriad, from avoiding spicy food to making sure fish is the only meat. Symbols -- on menus and above the food -- help bridge language barriers.
"A lot of these guys think they have to put a whole lot in but don't think a lot about what it is," says Fiona Pelly, a sports dietitian and one of the project's leaders. "They had no idea what they should be eating, some of them. We want to guide them, but we don't want to be too prescriptive."
Like much about the Olympics, the food operation is a microcosm of impending internationalism -- a harbinger of the multicultural epoch that is hurtling toward the world.
"This is one of the things that Sydney made its bid on -- that it could provide for all religions and backgrounds," says James Jupp, director of the Center for Immigration and Multicultural Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra. "All reasonable cuisines in the world can be catered for in Sydney."
It's clear that Aldrich, the American high-jumper, is intrigued by the victuals that extend to the dining-hall horizon. Though indulgence is verboten for now, after her event is finished she's planning to chow down.
"That dining hall," she says, "is the first place I'll go."