What one writer learned from shadowing a chef at the Tour de France.
I was standing across from Hannah Grant, the first female chef for the Tour De France, as she thinly sliced the tuna I’d watched her catch on a fishing boat in the Mediterranean that morning. She was preparing dinner for the eight riders on Team Orica-Scott (the Australian team at this year’s race), who were about to finish Stage 20 of the race in Marseilles. And I was there—me, an avid road cyclist, having a serious pinch-me moment.
Grant, a Danish chef who has worked in world-renowned restaurants like Noma and The Fat Duck, has spent the last seven years cooking for elite cyclists. This year, she embedded with Team Orica-Scott as video cameras followed her for an as-yet untitled Amazon docuseries inspired by her book, The Grand Tour Cookbook. I was invited along to watch her work her culinary magic for the final three stages of the Tour.
I talked to Grant about the importance of sourcing local, organic meats and produce for her athletes, who need every bit of nutrition and calories they can get over the 23-day endurance race that covers 2,200 miles. I shopped with her at a farmer’s market, studying how she chooses one tomato over another. I grilled her about how she plans each day’s menu, considering she must strike a balance between giving the riders what they want and what they need.
Spending time with Grant, the “Queen of Performance Cooking,” as she’s known among pro cyclists, changed the way I eat. Here’s how.
While walking around a farmer’s market in Marseilles with Grant as she shopped for produce for the athletes’ meal that night, I noticed her steering clear of anything that looked too perfect. Instead, she was scrummaging for gnarled carrots and misshapen potatoes. “The wonkier it looks and the smaller it is, the better it tastes,” Grant tells me as she picks up a shiny tomato and immediately puts it back down. “The uglier your produce, the greater the chance that it hasn’t been genetically modified or sprayed with pesticides,” she says. “And that means better nutrition for the athletes.”
While I can only find unofficial experiments and a handful of dietitians to confirm this, it makes sense to me. Each week, I open my box of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) organic produce and it’s loaded with fruits and veggies that the Japanese would call “wabi sabi”—a phrase loosely translated as, “there’s beauty in imperfection.” But when I go to the grocery store, even the organic sections are filled with perfectly-symmetrical produce that now make me wonder how it could possibly be so pretty. Plus, the “ugly produce” often gets tossed just on appearances alone, leading to billions of dollars in food waste, according to The Guardian.
So now, I look for the ugliest fruits and veggies I can find. While I’m not 100 percent sure of the particular health benefits they offer over other options, these guys taste just as good—and that’s good enough for me.
So many diets advocate cutting sugar. I’ve tried this tactic myself (I recently did The Whole 30 and felt great), but feel pretty strongly that a life without the occasional bagel, ice cream cone, or slice of key lime pie is one I don’t want to live. When I asked Grant for her take on the white stuff, she shared her golden rule: “Sugar on the bike is completely fine,” she says. “Eat as much sugar as you want when you’re riding. But when you get off the bike, opt for natural sugars over artificial ones, and know that the more sugar you eat, the more sugar you’ll crave.”
To keep the team happy and healthy—after all, sugar has been shown to have negative effects on gut health and immunity—Grant gets a little sneaky. “I made a chickpea blondie brownie that had much less sugar than regular brownies and went over really well,” says Grant. “I also serve a ton of poached fruit and fresh berries. The beauty is that when the sugar you eat is really good quality, less feels like more.”
The bottom line: Some sugar—particularly the natural sweeteners like honey, agave, and even pure, organic cane sugar—is A-okay when you’re blasting calories on a bike ride, run, hike, or some other physically grueling activity. Now, when I have something sweet, I make sure it’s high quality—and that I sneak a HIIT workout in at some point that week.
For the cyclists competing in the Tour de France, eating can feel as punishing as hauling up the Pyrenees on their bikes. Yes, they’re hungry when they’re done riding. “But these athletes are burning about 7,000 calories a day,” Grant says. Which means that in one day, they need to consume the same amount of food most people eat over the course of three or four days.
While that may sound kind of dreamy, here’s what these guys put down for breakfast alone: eggs, oatmeal or rice, muesli, a smoothie, homemade sourdough bread, ham, cheese, avocado, cold-pressed olive oil, yogurt, dried fruits, nuts, and milk. For dinner it’s always two types of protein (usually chicken and beef or fish), rice, pasta, and as many greens as Grant can get the guys to eat. While it’s all locally sourced and prepared by Grant—who has worked at Michelin-star restaurants—and her team of professional chefs, food boredom can set in quickly. To avoid this, Grant not only takes into account the difficulty of each stage, but also the team’s mood when planning the menu. “At the start of the tour when the energy is high, I’ll serve salads and broccoli,” she says. As the stages get tougher—and moods get darker—she serves comfort foods like French fries and macaroni and cheese.
There’s a lesson in here for me: When I finish a morning workout feeling great, I’ll make the effort to fry up some turkey sausage and cauliflower rice or make myself a veggie scramble. Other mornings—often when I’m slammed with work and short on time, or if I felt low on energy during my workout and ticked off about that as a result—I’m more likely to pick up a muffin at my local coffee shop.
So I’ve started prepping for my darker moods. I keep a batch of homemade peanut butter energy balls in my freezer so I’ve got a protein-packed snack to eat immediately after a tough bike ride or hike to indulge my need for comfort while still making healthy choices. I also store just-right portions of frozen fruit and veggies for my favorite smoothie—including the protein powder—so all I have to do is toss the contents of one bag in the blender with some almond or hemp milk. And on those mornings when what I’m really craving is a big plate of Challah French toast, I make some with multi-grain bread.
When Grant first started cooking for cyclists seven years ago, the food professional riders ate could be called basic, at best: grilled chicken, a salad buffet, tons of white pasta, and ketchup doused on everything to help it go down, says Grant. When she changed things up, serving more nutrient-dense vegetables and sides like brown rice, there was some dissent among the cyclists.
That’s when Grant got creative. She’d add a food the cyclists dreaded, like broccoli—“Broccoli is dangerous,” says Grant—to two foods that the cyclists liked a lot. “Then, the magic happens,” she adds. “I trick them into trying something and then they actually like it. Once I reach that kind of trust, the door opens to all kinds of other foods.”
When I got home from France, I opened one of the three jars of gourmet sauerkraut that have been sitting in my fridge for months, purchased after I wrote a story on the benefits of fermented foods (despite the benefits, I never got on board with sauerkraut). I added a tablespoon of dill and caraway kraut on top of a brown rice bowl filled with grilled chicken, broccoli florets, and black beans and suddenly, the pickled cabbage was WAY more appetizing, and added a unique flavor to my go-to bowl. Sure enough, I’ve already finished that jar and cracked into a second.