Fueling the Tour: Q&A with Saxo chef Hannah Grant
AVIGNON, France (VN) — Hers is not the title that first comes to mind when you think about a cycling team — not sport director or soigneur or mechanic — but head chef Hannah Grant has become a crucial cog in the machinery that keeps Saxo-Tinkoff moving.
Since joining the team three years ago, Grant has been gaining recognition for her role in fueling Saxo for major races and grand tours, all from a kitchen on wheels. She has a new cookbook, The Grand Tour Cookbook, in Danish, that tells the story of the food that powered Saxo during the 2012 Tour de France.
The Danish chef gave VeloNews an inside look at her kitchen, cooking philosophy, and life as a grand tour chef at the Saxo team hotel on the Tour’s second rest day.
VeloNews: Your career hasn’t really followed the traditional trajectory for a chef. Can you tell us how you ended up cooking for a cycling team?
Hannah Grant: How did I end up in the truck with a professional kitchen? I’m a trained chef from Denmark. In Denmark it’s a four-year education, so I took the whole thing, thinking I was going to be the next big Michelin star chef, but apparently it shouldn’t be like that.
Long story short, after I graduated, I worked a lot of different places. I worked in Noma in Copenhagen, and I was actually thinking about going back to school to study food science at the University of Copenhagen, but I kind of needed to work on the side of that. So I asked my colleague, my sous chef, “Do you have any contacts for a job where I could work a lot when I work, and be off a lot when I’m off?” I was more thinking banquets and maybe working on the weekends and being off weekdays. So he said he would ask around and then calls me and says, “You need to call this guy, he’s from a cycling team.”
I thought it sounded intriguing. I have a basic education in health and nutrition, so I had the basics down for that, and he said, “This could be really interesting for you.”
And I spoke to the guys here at the team — they had lined up three other guys up for the job, but they wanted to try something new and so they hired a female chef. And basically that was it. That was the weird road that led me here. And so I got hired and got thrown straight into a training camp, 30 riders, alone, the hardest 14 days of my life, but I earned my spot here.
VN: Did you follow cycling before you took the job, or is cycling something you have learned about since you started?
HG: I knew only Bjarne Riis in the cycling world before I started here. Now I know a lot.
VN: Would you say you’re a cycling fan now?
HG: For sure. I’m obsessed with the sport. When you’re in it, you can’t resist it. I look the guys in the eyes every day, and feel their pain, and can see how much they’re suffering. If you don’t start loving cycling from that, I don’t know. It’s so real. I love it.
VN: The job is cooking, but it’s very different from working in a restaurant. Can you talk about some of the differences?
HG: First of all, I set the menu. I mean, they can request stuff, the riders, if they want. I’ll note it and I’ll do it if it’s possible. But, obviously, then there’s rules to how to assemble the menu. Today’s a rest day, so we do a low-carb lunch for them. They’re not going so far, they just want to keep their legs going, so we don’t want to fill them up too much. And we don’t want to go too hard on the carbs so they don’t gain weight.
Then we have a philosophy of using lots of vegetables, proteins, and cold-pressed fats, and then we use a lot of gluten-free alternatives. So we try to encourage the riders to try other things than just pasta and bread. I do gluten-free breads as well.
It’s all to minimize all the little things that can stop you from performing 100 percent, that promote injuries, stomach problems, all those things. So that’s a big difference (from cooking in a restaurant), because I have to follow all those rules. I can’t just cook whatever I think is amazing. It has to be within those guidelines.
Then I take it as my personal job to take these guidelines and then make an incredible product from it, so they don’t feel like they’re missing out on things. It shouldn’t be a punishment to travel with a kitchen truck and a chef who cooks you food that’s good for you.
VN: What about the logistics, is that difficult? You’re constantly moving, your kitchen is in a truck! How do you source ingredients?
HG: It takes a little bit of getting used to. This is my third season, so now I’m in the routine and I know how to do it, so it’s easier. I source from wherever I can. Sometimes I order through the hotels, sometimes there’s a market, sometimes I go to (the supermarket). In France, it’s great, they have lots of biodynamic things in the market. We go very much organic and biodynamic whenever we can.
So it’s basically whatever is available, but because we have the big truck and the big fridges, I can fill up for four or five days in a row. So I know now that when we’re going to the Alps, I can’t get anything on Alpe d’Huez, so it’s important for me to load up and be ready for that.
So it’s just thinking ahead, knowing when it’s going to be hard to get stuff and when it’s easy to get stuff.
VN: Is it stressful? If you run a kitchen in a restaurant, obviously you don’t want to make a mistake and have someone get sick, but here, there’s no margin for error. If you get sick and have a bad day you can lose the Tour.
HG: I never serve anything — if I have even the slightest doubt that something’s good, I throw it out. I never serve shellfish for the same reason, never any mussels or anything. Never anything that could have even a one in 1,000 chance of not being good. Even if it smells fresh, I never serve it. That’s a priority. I take no chances.
It’s a big responsibility. I know that if the doctor says, hey, someone has a big problem with their stomach, I ask, “How? Why?” But usually it’s because they have so much sugar in on the bikes, and they sit curled up, there are many other things that come into it. But the biggest thing I can do is make sure the meals are hygienically clean and all right, and the product is as fresh as possible so they get the best possible product.
VN: Do you feel personally invested in the riders’ success? You’re providing them the fuel to make it up the mountains, after all.
HG: I even get nervous — you know, like (Sunday) on Mont Ventoux — two years ago Alberto (Contador) didn’t eat enough on one stage, so he couldn’t go up, and I was like, “You finish off your dinner!”
I try to pump them up with fuel, because the first thing they look at is whether there was not enough food. There’s always enough food, but I can’t force the riders to eat enough, to eat the right fats and to have enough energy to go up. So when they do well, even on Twitter everybody says, “I’m sure it was the stuff you served last night!”
VN: Do the riders have a favorite meal, for example?
HG: Last time, before the rest day, they looked through my cookbook and saw the burger and immediately said, “We want that!” They always want a burger all the time, but they can only have it the day before the rest day. They love lamb. They love variations, that it changes, that it’s not just the same grilled chicken breast every day. Sometimes it’s different riders, different cultures, and you can’t make everyone equally happy every day. So you change it up a bit, and sometimes you hit the spot with something.
VN: Do you have any riders who are very old school, who only want to eat lots of pasta and that’s all?
HG: In the beginning when I got the job, then yes. But now I’ve opened their eyes to a different way of eating. It’s tough getting into the sport as a chef with guidelines and ideas of how to do things differently because cycling is a sport where they say, “It’s like this, it’s always like this, and that’s the way we do it.”
So there have been many tough days. It’s not so much because of the riders, but the staff. For them, it’s like, this is still a new thing, even though there have been chefs with the teams for 10 years.
VN: One unique thing about working on a grand tour is that don’t get to go home every night like a normal person. Is it hard to be out here on the road every day for three weeks, away from your family and from home?
HG: You kind of get into the mindset of it. When I leave my house to go to the airport for a big tour like this, I have in my mind that I’m away for a month. And then it’s just every day a routine.
It’s not so bad. The first year was hard, because I didn’t know how to source my energies out. Now I know, I keep my conversations short with my husband (so I can stay focused on my work). This is also a learning process in a relationship. But for sure, I love being out, and it’s nice coming home. But it’s a lot about getting used to being out here.
VN: Can you tell us a little bit about your new book?
HG: It’s based on the Tour from last year. 21 race days, two rest days, four or five dinner recipes every night. We focus on vegetables, proteins, good fats. Underneath the recipes it’ll say serve with brown rice, potatoes.
It also has symbols to show gluten-free, dairy-free, and nut-free, so it’s easy to find out if you have a specific diet, if you want to follow something, to go through it and see what you can’t eat and go for the right symbol and then you’re fine.
If you can’t source what’s in the recipe, we talk about alternatives. And everything is cooked from the bottom and it has bread recipes, vinaigrettes, desserts too.
We’re working on an English version of the book. When it comes out, I can’t say. But there’s the Tour de France start in London, so I don’t know if they’ll push it fast or keep it. But for sure we’re working on it.
Editor’s note: Hannah Grant Tweets as @dailystews and blogs at dailystews.com.