By NICOLE WINFIELD
LONDON — Fancy a traditional English fry-up for breakfast? How about a chicken curry or some kimchi? Or would a lamb samosa and some baba ganoush from a halal kitchen be more to your taste?
Step right this way. The athletes’ dining room in the Olympic village is a food court like no other, offering the world’s elite athletes healthy, hearty food and fuel, 24 hours a day — and doing it the Slow Food way.
The milk is organic, the coffee free-trade and eggs free-range. The chicken, which is flying off the grill as athletes opt for basic protein, carries Britain’s “Freedom Food” label, certified by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as meeting its strict animal welfare standards.
Recycling and compost bins proliferate and where possible, local farmers have grown the produce. The seafood part of Britain’s famous fish and chips is made from sustainably caught fish.
And yet, off in the back corner of the dining room, next to the coffee bar that’s disproportionately populated by Italians queuing up for their morning espresso, lurks McDonald’s and its Sausage & Egg McMuffins.
Fast-food giant McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Cadbury are official sponsors of these games and have branding rights inside Olympic Park.
And so the Golden Arches have no corporate competition in these parts — just whatever chief Olympic caterer Jan Matthews and her crew of chefs from around the world can dish up for the more than 24,000 athletes, coaches and team officials from 200-plus countries who pass through her dining room on any given day.
“Our view was that if we got good ingredients and we had good chefs, we would get great food,” Matthews said over coffee one morning amid the breakfast bustle in the dining room.
She acknowledges the incongruity of McDonald’s in her Slow Food-inspired dining room, but says no one is forcing anyone to eat it.
“I think it’s a choice thing,” she says. “The fact is, people like it.” And besides, McDonald’s in recent years has changed its menu to reflect demands for healthier food. And it’s an official Olympic sponsor.
Matthews’ aim in her kitchen was to showcase British food, sustainable food and food that reflects the trend for better animal welfare, because “better animal welfare in many cases actually does mean better meat at the end of the day.”
It’s an Olympian feat given the numbers involved. Over the course of the 17-day games, Olympic organizers estimate 14 million meals will be served to athlete and spectator alike. On a busy day in the athletes’ dining room, chefs will serve 65,000 meals. In the Olympic village alone, that breaks down to:
—25,000 loaves of bread
—31 tons of poultry items
—232 tons of potatoes
—19 tons of eggs
—75,000 liters (20,000 gallons) of milk
Matthews goes through the shopping list outlined in her “Food Vision” — a manifesto of sorts for these 2012 Foodie Games — and realizes the numbers are already way off.
“I think we’ll probably beat that, and that, and that and that,” she says running her finger down the line. “Demand across the board is higher than we anticipated.”
But fear not, Michael Phelps. The food won’t run out while you’re off winning another medal. Matthews says her food budget, which started out in the single-digit million-dollar realm, is flexible and no more expensive than if she hadn’t insisted on an environmentally sensitive menu.
“If Michael Phelps comes in and he wants his eggs and his steak, he gets his eggs and his steak,” Matthew says.
Phelps is not alone in getting special treatment. The Australians requested jars of their beloved Vegemite, the brown goo (high in Vitamin B) made from brewing beer that’s a popular bread spread Down Under. The highly endorsed Americans asked that Kellogg’s cereals be available, if not advertised as such.
Matthews brought in the grain spelt for the handful of wheat-intolerant athletes. The three to four Orthodox Jews are getting their kosher meals delivered from a London kosher kitchen.
But most athletes are sampling fare from home and far away at the five food “pods” that ring the cavernous dining room. Front and center sits the “Best of Britain” offering traditional English breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, black pudding, roast tomatoes and mushrooms.
For a country whose culinary reputation for years centered on mushy peas and boiled potatoes, the decision to showcase British food might strike some as odd. But the “Best of Britain” food station is the most popular among athletes and coaches, Matthews said.
The selection of fruits at the Europe/Americas/Mediterranean station would make any foodie’s mouth water. Condiments take up an entire counter: Balsamic vinegar, rapeseed oil, sweet chili sauce and blue cheese dressing. Conspicuously absent: poppy seeds. (“It will show up on an anti-doping test,” Matthews says.) And alcohol. The athletes village is officially dry.
Next door at the halal food station — which provides food slaughtered and prepared according to Islamic law — curried spinach and aubergines vied for attention with the baba ganoush and fava beans.
Rotisserie chickens roasted on a spit at the “African and Caribbean” station while at the bustling “India and Asia’s Finest” pod, Hong Kong fencer Sin Ying Au piled some nasi goreng fried rice next to her bacon and eggs and bowl of hot milk.
“I like it very much,” she said. “Every day they have a new style, and I think the taste is very authentic.”
Polish team psychologist Maciej Regwelski lined up behind her, looking for some pierogis, the traditional Polish stuffed dumplings.
“We don’t have typical Polish food here,” he said. “Sometimes there are little pierogis at the Asian station,” but not today. He walked away with sushi. For breakfast.
While Matthews is delighted that so many athletes are spreading their gastronomic wings and “tucking in,” she’s well aware that they eat for one reason only: fuel.
“They’re not looking for rich fancy food,” she said. “They’re looking for good quality, good tasting food that will give them the protein and carbs that they need.”
Matthews made the daily menus at the village available to national Olympic committees ahead of time, so coaches could plan down to the calorie what each athlete should eat and when, depending on training and competing schedules.
For athletes without team nutritionists, experts at the “nutrition kiosk” just inside the dining room entrance offer meal-to-meal advice.
Watched over by his two coaches, Nicaraguan swimmer Omar Yasser Nunez Munguia finished his plate of sliced fruit as he surveyed the tempting options nearby, noting that in his previous Olympics at Beijing in 2008 there were only three choices in the athletes’ dining room: international, Mediterranean and Asian.
“There’s much more variety here,” he said, though he acknowledged that he’s sticking to fruit for breakfast, and lunch and dinners of grilled chicken with a bit of pasta and salad on the side.
For now. After he competes, he plans to celebrate by breaking his diet.
“I haven’t had a Big Mac yet,” he whispered, looking wistfully at the McDonald’s just a few yards away.