Athletic Performance Chefs – June 2003
One of the great aspects of a chef’s occupation is the seemingly endless opportunities. Imagine, for example, going to your favorite professional athlete’s home and cooking dinner for him or her – and getting paid to do it. Or cooking for an Olympian and then seeing him or her win a medal. That’s just what many chefs are doing today, according to Tom Stieber, Chief Executive Officer of Big City Chefs, a national company based on the West Coast that specializes in placing qualified chefs as personal chefs. “We have a team of chefs, and many of them cook for professional athletes,” says Stieber. “We have numerous San Diego Chargers as clients; many of the players are actually encouraged by their trainers to hire personal chefs.”
Most of the chefs that are placed through Big City Chefs have formal culinary training and restaurant experience. “There are many good chefs out there, but those with education and restaurant background ensure quality for our (customers),” adds Stieber. Some chefs have four or five players as clients, but this doesn’t mean they cook for each of them every day. They go to the athletes’ homes and prepare, package, label, and freeze a week’s worth of meals that can be reheated. They also include reheating instructions.
The one thing that most personal chefs have in common is the benefit of flexible hours. Terese Hollander and Dionisio Esperas, chefs and co-owners of A Healthy Kitchen, a cooking school and personal chef service in Sacramento, Calif., cook for Mateen Cleaves, a guard for the Sacramento Kings. “We started teaching classes on healthy meal alternatives and it was just a natural outgrowth for us to cook for athletes and their personal trainers,” says Hollander. Esperas and Hollander are not only business partners, they’re also engaged to be married and the flexible hours offer them time as a family. Stieber concurs, saying, “What my chefs always tell me is that their lifestyle is so improved. The restaurant work may have been fine when they were younger, but now many of them are starting families and the hours are so much more conducive to family life.”
Christy Bundy, chef and owner of The Gracious Gourmet, a personal chef service in Ridgeland, Miss., currently cooks for Grady Jackson, defensive tackle for the New Orleans Saints. She was recruited through The Personal Chefs Network and majored in dietetics in college, something that easily incorporates into her current job. “For a while, Mr. Grady was on a low-fat, low-carb diet to lose a few pounds, but now I’m just cooking regular meals for him,” states Bundy.
According to The American College of Sports Medicine, athletic performance and recovery from exercise are enhanced by optimal nutrition. Most athletes realize this, and so do their chefs. “We cook Mateen fresh meals every few days,” states Hollander. “Everything he eats is organic so we tend to do a lot of his shopping at a natural foods co-op. Mateen realizes that there is a direct link between what he eats and his athletic performance.”
Most chefs are hired for general cooking for the athletes, but some are hired short term and with a specific purpose in mind. “I recently cooked for a professional baseball player during the off-season,” says Toni Belveal, who operates her personal chefs service in Gold Canyon, Ariz. “He hired me to help him gin weight and muscle mass without adding fat, which we were able to accomplish.” The athlete she cooked for is a player on a major Midwest team and while he was “bulking up” he consumed a whopping 4,000-5,000 calories a day. His dinner was 2,000 calories alone. Prior to accepting the challenge, Belveal worked with the player’s nutritionist and did a lot of her own research. “One of the biggest challenges was trying to come up with meals that could reach 2,000 calories, yet, at the same time, be low in fat. I took basic foods, such as pasta and meatloaf, and reworked them. Cooking for him was like cooking for a family of four.”
If cooking for celebrity athletes sounds like a dream for a chef, it should. The hours are desirable, and the chefs can still be creative. Many operate their own businesses. “I think if you’re organized, it’s a great career. You’re able to be creative with menus and recipes, you set your own hours, and and you can interact with clients,” states Hollander. Working for an individual can be challenging but also rewarding and, for a chef looking for more manageable hours while still flexing his or her creative wings, this may be just the ticket. Bundy expounds, “It can be a challenging position. You don’t know their personal preferences at first and having something different from week to week is also important. But I work for myself and it’s very rewarding. Being your own boss is unique. It’s not an opportunity that everyone has.”
While many athletes hire chefs to work with them on a one-to-one basis, some cook for entire teams. Such is the case with Jacque Hamilton, CEC, executive chef at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Spring, Colo. She and her staff cook for hundreds of athletes every day, and the kitchen is open from 7:00 A.M. to 8:30 P.M. “Most of the athletes eat five times a day. They burn off the calories as fast as they consume them,” says Hamilton. “One thing that makes us unique is that we have nutritional analysis available for all of our foods,” she continues. “It’s difficult sometimes, as a chef, because you know that certain things would be better if you added cream or butter, but you can’t. I drive the nutritionist nuts.”
Just because the numbers are larger doesn’t mean that the chef doesn’t get to know the athletes personally. Many come into the kitchen to greet her and some have special requests. “If there is a particular athlete who needs something special we will cater directly to him or her. When you’re working directly with the athletes you get to know them. We have televisions in the kitchens, which we turn on during the games, and it’s a very personal experience when you see them on television because you know them. These sports are their lives.” – Joseph George