They are what they eat: A day with Tinkoff-Saxo’s chef

They are what they eat

A day with Tinkoff-Saxo chef Hannah Grant

Photos by Iri Greco/Brakethrough Media
Words by Caley Fretz

[vc_separator color=”grey”]Stage 13.

Muret to Rodez, 198.5 kilometers along the edge of the Massif Central.

Tinkoff-Saxo chef Hannah Grant is up early. She’s always up early. A 10:30 a.m. departure means 8:30 breakfast, prep at 6:30, and a head rising from its pillow by 6:00. She was up until midnight last night, as she almost always is, cleaning and preparing. She’ll be up until midnight tonight, doing the same.

As she talks through her day, her tasks and duties and stresses, it’s clear that this chef is no ordinary chef, this kitchen no ordinary kitchen, this job far from an ordinary job.

Grant worked in the second-best restaurant in the world, once. She met her husband at The Fat Duck. Then on to Noma, what many call the world’s best restaurant. She loved the pace of the kitchen; she was going to be the world’s next iconic, female, Michelin-star chef, until a realization that she wasn’t — “It f—king killed me” — sent her in a different direction entirely.

She went back to school, for a short while at least, but needed work, too.

“I contacted my old colleague at Noma, and I said ‘I need a job where I can work and concentrate a lot, but also where I can be off a lot, thinking probably banquets and weddings and some things like that,” she says. “He called me and said, ‘You know what, Hannah, there’s this crazy job. It’s for a cycling team. It’s perfect, it’s only from January to July at the Tour de France and then they’re going to swap chefs; he can only start after the Tour.’ I thought, ‘That’s perfect. I’ll work there. I’ll do my extra studies, and when the Tour finishes I can go to university.’ That didn’t happen.”

That’s how she’s here, in another stark hotel, setting about another day feeding nine of the world’s best cyclists from the back of a heavily modified box truck.

Grant is not alone. Her kitchen, despite its mobility, is certified and approved in her native Denmark to take on apprentices. She takes them in their last year of schooling, funded by the Danish government. Rune Sørensen was the last, hired by Tinkoff upon graduation.

Does he like the work? “There’s nothing better,” he says.

In 2012, Tinkoff mechanics ordered up a new truck. But someone messed up, and it came with an engine that was too small for the tons of bikes and gear it would need to haul. So Grant got it — a brand new truck to build as she wished.

“The chief mechanic called me, almost crying, and said, ‘Hannah you’re going to get a new kitchen truck.'”

Grant designed the new truck herself. It needed windows, so she wouldn’t feel cut off from the world and her team. “If it doesn’t have any windows you never see your colleagues, like really never see your colleagues. You’re alone, alone, alone,” she says.

It needed large, flat surfaces for prep work, too, and an open space so colleagues could come and go. The steel interior was custom built to fit.

The cost was about 50,000 euro, plus the truck itself. It is bigger and brighter, Grant says, than the Michelin-star kitchen she first worked in.

It’s 8:30 a.m., two hours prior to the team’s departure from this hotel, two and a half after Grant’s alarm went off. Time for breakfast.

It’s a big meal, but simple, with options for varying tastes. Porridge, rice, pasta, almonds, and more are laid out for the riders to pick through. A coffee machine, too, is lugged each day from the truck.

The riders eat lunch on the bike, a combination of rice cakes and pre-packaged calories. Grant won’t feed them again until dinner, nearly 12 hours away.

Between breakfast and dinner, there’s quite a lot to do.

Today is a shopping day, an endeavor Grant and Sørensen tackle once every four days or so.

“When we shop, we shop American-style, two carts with full load. Because if we have to go everyday, it’s three or four hours, and we work 25 days in a row during the Tour.”

That would be 75 hours of shopping.

Fruits and veggies are often pre-ordered through hotel restaurants. Meats, including good French organic beef, is picked up in bulk and frozen in the truck’s big freezers. The team has sponsors, too, that provide heaps of olive oil, dried fruits, dairy products, jams, even wine and beer. But even with an array of alternative sources, the shopping trip remains vital.

“This is my fifth Tour de France, and I have done a lot of races in France, and I know what areas I need to beware, where I can’t get stuff. When we go into the mountains, I need to pre-order things at the hotels to load up. I know what supermarkets to go to. It’s learning by doing. In the beginning it was awful, but you learn it the hard way,” Grant says. The chef truck functions as a restaurant. Grant and Sørensen plan ahead; if they get 12 chickens, they break down, cut up, and marinate them so that they have chicken for three days. Dinner preparation begins three to four hours ahead of the first plates being served.

“The estimated time of eating may change, but as the riders come back on the bus I know I have about two hours before I have to serve because they get massages and so on,” Grant says.

Grant and Sørensen drive, on average, 250 kilometers (155 miles) between hotels each day. The grocery shopping takes up their usual time to relax, a mid-afternoon period while the riders are still pedaling and dinner prep does not yet need to begin. By the time they reach the hotel near Rodez, it’s time to work again.

There are some obvious differences between work with a cycling team and work in a traditional restaurant. Grant has the same nine guests every night; she knows all their likes and dislikes and allergies. Roman Kreuziger, for example, can’t do yogurt.

None of the team in France this summer is particularly picky, Grant says. Her pickiest rider is now on a different team — who he is, she wouldn’t say.

Grant is well aware of her role in the second half of the overriding equation of modern cycling: watts per kilogram. It is the figure that determines climbing speed, and thus success in the Tour. The modern professional peloton is leaner than it’s ever been. Chefs like Grant are part of that — riders’ diets are more carefully controlled than they used to be, and the food is better. The days of pasta and chicken every night for a month are mostly gone.

But it’s not Grant’s job to keep riders lean; it’s her job to fuel them properly. Quantity is mostly self-policing, she said, with a bit of help from team doctors.

“The doctor keeps track of them with the fat-measuring device, often, so they can see [where they stand].

“They are professionals, and they know if they slack off then they pack on. … For a rider, if they pack on 500 grams, that is make or break for the win. The group here is all experienced riders. We have one guy but he has really, really learned how to change his ways. But then he is surrounded by guys who you know will keep an eye on him if he is [on a] slippery slope, and be like, ‘Hey we are not going to drag you up, you need to be there.’”

Problems with food can go the other way, of course. Eating disorders are not unheard of professional cycling. Smelling the food coming from Grant’s kitchen, it’s difficult to imagine any rider choosing to eat less. But, again, Grant says that the riders are mostly self-policing.

“We have actually had riders who tried to starve themselves and the like, but this group [at the Tour] is amazing.

“If you start to do the teenage girl starvation diet, you’re not going to make it through the stage. The most important thing is that they need to eat some protein and they can’t be too afraid of fats. The whole like thing of starvation is just a big no-go,” she says.

The menu is set by Grant, with help from team nutritionists and doctors. Riders do occasionally make requests, too.

“In the beginning, they are all super-motivated, like ‘Hannah, we are all going to eat super-healthy and we’re going to do this, like no desserts, no nothing,’ and then a week into the race, ‘Oh, okay, can we have some dessert,’ and then 10 days into the race you see them start snacking.

“The riders I have known for a long time, they will remember things that I have done for them, and they will be like, ‘Oh can you make the thing that you did? Can you make the salmon that I did or the chicken or whatever’ … Sometimes we will do that. Then sometimes they ask stuff like, ‘Can you make healthy croissants’ and I’m like, ‘no,’ not one you’d want to eat, anyway.”

9:30 p.m. The evening winds down after dinner. Hungry riders sated, they lounge outside before disappearing, one by one, to their rooms. Grant and Sørensen clean up the kitchen, do a bit of prep for the next morning, and then sit down themselves.

Fourteen hours after they began serving breakfast, a bottle of wine is opened, and they munch on a few dinner leftovers, chatting with staff, cracking jokes. Tomorrow, they’ll do it all again.