London 2012: why feeding 24,000 athletes and team officials is an Olympian feat

Providing familiar food, meeting halal standards and not poisoning the competitors are among the challenges for the caterers

Jan Matthews knows that Usain Bolt likes chicken, and she’s made sure to get plenty in. The head of catering at the London Olympics has ordered 31 tonnes of poultry to supply the 24,000 athletes and team officials who will descend on the Olympic Village this summer. And while even the fastest man on earth, who famously swears by pre-race chicken nuggets, won’t dent that supply, Matthews isn’t taking chances.

“We are not going to turn round to Usain Bolt and say, ‘You can’t have any more chicken’,” she said as she contemplated the cost of the runaway appetites of the world’s leading sportsmen and women. “I remember seeing reports on the Beijing Games saying that the American swimmer Michael Phelps was having two dozen eggs for breakfast.”

Bolt and Phelps are among the athletes expected to consume more than a million meals during the Olympics and Paralympics as part of what has been described as the biggest catering operation in peacetime. The competitors are expected to eat 25,000 loaves of bread, more than 82 tonnes of seafood, a quarter of a million eggs and more than 330 tonnes of fruit and vegetables. The dining room alone seats 5,000 and is big enough to park more than 80 London buses inside. At the busiest times the chefs are expected to serve 65,000 meals a day.

But the catering is about more than just numbers. If done right, Matthews believes it will be both a source of comfort for thousands of young people who find themselves far from home, often for the first time, and the essential fuel that will power athletes to Olympic medals and world records. If done wrong it could wreck the Games.

“If you have an elite athlete who alleges they have food poisoning and they can’t compete in the one race they have been working their life to get to, we have to be sure we have done everything we could that we didn’t cause it,” she says.

Locog, the London organising committee, has even appointed 130 qualified environmental health officers as volunteers who will be “up front, in the faces” of the caterers across the park “making sure we know what they are doing”. Any considered a risk will be condemned with a red sticker and shut down.

Poisoning the stars of the show is the stuff of nightmares for the organisers, but excitement about the potential of food to help fuel great Olympian performances appears to outstrip the fear.

At least 800 chefs will cook for the athletes 24 hours a day, seven days a week. After consulting athletes and former Olympians includingJonathan Edwards and Karen Pickering, and delegations from the biggest and smallest teams, the organisers have decided to establish four “pods” in the dining hall: Asian, African-Caribbean, “best of British” and Mediterranean and western.

The caterers in the village, from the multinational firm Aramark, have been asked to draft in specialist cooks from around the world to make sure regional dishes taste authentic. For example, Asian chefs have advised that at least four types of rice will be needed to go with curries and the spicing of dishes is being calibrated to ensure dishes taste as close to home cooking as possible.

“It is really important to an athlete who might not have been away from home that they feel some comfort and recognition in being served food from their home countries,” said Matthews, who has tasted most of the 1,300 dishes that will be on offer. “There is a requirement to ensure recipes are not produced to our taste, but how they would expect them.”

Matthews, who lives in the Worcestershire countryside with her husband and teenage son, is familiar with this surrogate mother role. For five years she worked for the Naafi, the Ministry of Defence’s catering organisation, with responsibility to feed 50,000 hungry troops across five garrisons in Germany.

“If they weren’t getting the right nutrition, they wouldn’t be fit to go on operations,” she said.

When she saw the Olympics job, she responded like many of her future Locog colleagues: “I said to my husband if I am sitting on the couch at home watching the opening ceremony and I know I had the opportunity to take part, I wouldn’t have forgiven myself.”

But the complexities are huge. Saudi Arabia is one of more than 50 Muslim countries sending competitors who are likely to be negotiating the Ramadan fast during the Games. That means eating a meal known as suhoor before dawn and breaking the fast after dusk with iftar, which comes at 8.56pm on the day of the opening ceremony.

Locog will also provide special food packs for Muslim athletes to break fast if they are competing at venues at dusk. For the first time some food served at an Olympics will adhere to standards set by the European Halal Development Agency. For meat labelled as halal, there will be no mechanical slaughter, the animal will not be stunned and a Muslim slaughterman will declare the animal has been killed in the name of Allah.

“We have been co-ordinating with Locog and the IOC for the past five years on this and London has said they will provide halal food during breakfast and late suppers,” said Dr Rashed al-Heraiwel, the secretary general of the Saudi Arabian Olympic committee. “There will be meat and chicken and it will be slaughtered according to Islamic law.”

Another concern is that the amount of food on offer could upset the dietary plans of some athletes. Locog is laying on sports nutritionists to help athletes make choices, especially when they are part of teams that are too small to employ such support staff.

“When some of the athletes from Asia and Africa see the amount of food, in some ways it blows their mind that they could eat all of this,” said Matthews. “It is a challenge for the coaches to say you can enjoy yourself, but after your race.”

The International Olympic Committee has even warned athletes against the “temptations of an all-you-can eat-dining hall in an athletes’ village”.

If an athlete doesn’t fancy the security checks needed to get into the dining room, coffee carts dotted around the village will offer porridge in the mornings and salads and sandwiches later. A street food area will include Cafe Môr, originally an award-winning seafood shack on the Pembrokeshire coast, and one of the only independent caterers to provide food in the village.

“I don’t enjoy pretentious food but that is what is good about British cooking,” said Matthews, whose favourite recipe writers include Angela Hartnett and Delia Smith. “We have always had the best ingredients. A lot of the great chefs have done their training in France or Spain, but there is an appreciation of the ingredients we have in this country and we are getting better at bringing the best out.”