Traveling to Paris might seem like a dream culinary vacation, but for Brian Knutson, director of food and nutrition services for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, it’s all in a day’s work.
Knutson is taking off for France in July, one year out from the 2024 Summer Games, to lay the groundwork for feeding Team USA next year.
It’s a formidable task but “it will be easier than working with Japan and China,” he said, speaking of the previous Summer and Winter Games, held in Tokyo and Beijing, respectively. “We had to bring in a lot of dry products and shipping was very expensive. Plus, we couldn’t visit any of the Asian markets because of COVID. The goal now is to find all the ingredients in France.”
Knutson took a trip to Paris last September to get the lay of the land and came back with a greater understanding of how he will be feeding the athletes. He and his team started outlining menus and processes from U.S. Olympic Committee headquarters in Colorado Springs, but when he lands in France with Executive Chef Nick Lachman this July, they’re going shopping.
“We’ll spend one day at Rungis [International] Market, the world’s largest food market covering 578 acres and 1,200 vendors,” said Knutson. “We’re working with the French [Olympic] dining director and will visit at 2 a.m. when the market opens. We want to see what’s in season in July, when we’ll be there for the Summer Games.”
Also on the agenda is a meeting with the French Sysco reps, since Sysco in France procures all the products for the team. And there’s a meeting with Coca-Cola, the official soft drink sponsor, to try the flavors customized for the French market.
Now, one year out, Knutson is building relationships and setting up logistics. Six months out, he’ll develop ordering sheets and menu guidelines, finalizing everything with about three months to go. Once the foodservice team arrives in Paris next July, 60,000 volunteers will help them set up. The Opening Ceremony is scheduled for July 26, 2024.
Bridging cultures through food
The foodservice team plans menus in accordance with the athletes’ nutrition guidelines, and they know the proteins, dairy, fruit and vegetables to include, but “we always have to adapt to the country we go into,” Knutson said. “I’m really excited about all the seafood in France. That said, chicken is always our biggest purchase.”
France seems to have everything the foodservice team needs; after all, Paris is the food capital of the world and has access to more products than most other cities. Except tofu. “With all the Michelin-starred Japanese restaurants in Paris, you’d think tofu would be readily available, but it’s hard to find,” he said.
And Knutson is encouraged by France’s focus on sustainability. “NAE [No Antibiotics Ever] products are more accessible and the truth in labeling laws are amazing,” he said. The country of origin is shown on every food item, and the label even shows how far something like an avocado has traveled to get to market.
For the Summer Games, the International Olympic Committee and Paris ’24 made a commitment to include more vegetable-forward dishes. “But we have to say ‘no’ to meat substitutes,” said Knutson. “Ingredient lists have to be as small as possible, about four to five ingredients, so we won’t use the faux meats.”
But beef burgers are must-haves, and the team sources a 92% lean ground beef blend to make them. They are regularly available in the main U.S. dining hall, along with all-American Texas barbecue. “Most of our cooking equipment is purchased in France, but we always bring a smoker with us to prepare authentic barbecue,” said Knutson. “It blew the Japanese chefs’ minds.”
And that’s one of the most rewarding outcomes of cooking alongside chefs from other countries. Team USA has its own foodservice facility, but French chefs will be cooking there, following nutrition and ingredient guidelines for the planned meals. There will also be an entire station offering French specialties. And fresh-baked baguettes and croissants will be coming in every day.
“The U.S. chefs want to learn from the French chefs and vice versa, sharing recipes, cooking techniques, etc.,” said Knutson.
Veal may be the only outlier. “Two to three French meals a week are usually veal, and the American athletes won’t eat it,” he said.