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Being a chef at the Tour de France

James Witts
14 Oct 2015

Cyclist was embedded with the Trek team during the 2015 Tour de France. In the first of a new series, we head into the kitchen.

Fuelling the professional peloton has changed beyond recognition since the days when recipes comprised pasta, pasta and, for variety, brown pasta. Many of today’s team chefs are now minor celebrities in their own right, with social media providing them with a global platform to parade their latest recipes even as the pros are tucking into them after each stage. A few examples from this year’s Tour: ‘Chicken and tomato w/ coriander and roasted fennel,’ Hannah Grant @dailystews (Tinkoff-Saxo). ‘Mussels from #Bretagne, chervil, tarragon, dill fresh, fennel, garlic, carrot and ginger,’ Soren Kristiansen @TheFuelingChef (Team Sky). ‘Fresh carrots with walnuts, garlic, goat’s cheese, garlic toast with humus caviar and anchovies,’ Sean Fowler @Larryvich (Cannondale-Garmin).

‘Twitter has become a useful tool for communicating with recreational riders,’ says Trek Factory Racing’s chef Kim Rokkjaer, who Cyclist is shadowing for the day during Stage 17 of this year’s Tour – 161km from Digne-les-Bains to Pra Loup. ‘We’re also on Facebook and WhatsApp. They’re great for sharing ideas,’ he says as he prepares the breakfast that will fuel the team for what’s ahead.

‘This is my little corner,’ he says of the steel workplace squeezed between a sink and trays of freshly dishwashed cutlery in a corner of the Ibis hotel where the team is staying. Grey plastic trays brim with knives and forks, and the tiled floor is cluttered with large Tupperware boxes that are filled with smaller Tupperware boxes. It feels like a school canteen kitchen, albeit with French radio blasting over the aroma of croissants (for Ibis public customers, not the riders) rather than the paroxysm of adolescent chat.

Kim Rokkjaer frying

‘I cook the riders’ food only,’ Rokkjaer says. ‘Over there is space for the soigneurs, who’ll make the staff sandwiches. There are around 24 support staff at the Tour so it would be too much for me to cook everything on my own.’

‘This place is fine to work in,’ he says, gliding between hob, workplace and ingredients with the smooth, calm authority of an electric gear shift. ‘In fact, it’s almost luxury staying at the same hotel for three nights in a row.’ That rare event is made possible due to the previous stage’s nearby finish and a rest day between them. ‘Mind you, we stayed at the same hotel for around six days at the start of the Tour because we arrived the Tuesday before. That’s too long. Time moves slowly at the Tour when you’re stuck in one place.’

Some of the guys only eat white bread because they want quick sugar. It might not be textbook but it’s the riders who ride, not the nutritionist...

Rokkjaer’s typical day follows a metronomic schedule throughout the Tour. Two hours before the riders descend to the dining area he begins prepping breakfast. That’s usually 7.30am depending on the transfer distance between hotel and the start village. At the 13.8km prologue in Utrecht, Rokkjaer had nine riders to feed. Then Fabian Cancellara crashed on Stage 3 and retired after the finish with a broken back. Eight dropped to seven on the morning we infiltrated the kitchen, with Luxembourg’s Laurent Didier failing to start due to gastrointestinal issues.

‘Not your cooking?’ I joke. No reply is forthcoming, and I can only hope the French radio drowned out my potentially ill-judged remark. Or perhaps I was saved by Rokkjaer’s food processor that’s currently blending a mix of berries, orange juice, banana and Yop strawberry yoghurt for an antioxidant-packed start to the day.

Kim Rokkjaer smoothie

‘The riders will also add vitamin powder to the smoothie, or cherry juice, which is pretty big right now,’ Rokkjaer says with a raised eyebrow, indicating that he’s a little dubious. ‘Whether it will become a mainstay, I’m unsure. Six months ago I wasn’t allowed to give vitamin C because research appeared that said it prevented the muscles adapting properly post-ride. Every day there is something new. Maybe I’m a little old fashioned but a lot of these things are fads.’

Gluten-free vs white

There is stronger evidence relating to the dough mix that’s expanding in transparent bowls next to the whizzing berries. ‘Normally I make the bread mixture one day before it’s baked, but today I’ll make the batter for the next two or three days. I make a mix of white and gluten-free. Gluten-free’s better for digestion, but some of the guys only eat white because they want quick sugar. It might not be textbook but it’s the riders who ride, not the nutritionist or doctors. The riders know their bodies.’

Rokkjaer then tells an anecdote about how the team doctors tested Bauke Mollema and his teammates, and said that 80% of them were intolerant to eggs and shouldn’t eat them. ‘I said to the doctor, “That’s great, just great.” Thankfully nothing came of it. Sometimes feeding the riders can become overcomplicated.’

It certainly would be without eggs. As on every Tour morning, Rokkjaer is making porridge with organic oats, honey, salt, olive oil (‘for good fats’) and water. The riders are then presented with an accompanying Tupperware trough of every nut known to man (including almonds, walnuts, pistachios) plus dried fruit. But it’s the humble omelette that provides the protein-packed core to the riders’ breakfast.

Kim Rokkjaer interview

‘Every rider has them every morning, usually served with white rice, though sometimes brown if it’s a particularly brutal mountainous stage. They can add ham, cheese and/or turkey slices, depending on their preference.’

Rokkjaer cooks the omelettes in a drop of olive oil but only when the riders are sat comfortably at the table. The first rider to hit the Ibis diner is 22-year-old Bob Jungels, who would go on to finish fifth in the young rider classification and 27th overall, serving notice of his potential. The 6ft 2in Luxembourg rider, tanned and squeezed into compression socks – like all the Trek riders at breakfast – is followed soon after by Colombian climber Julián Arredondo, who measures a whisker over 5ft 5in. ‘Whatever their size, I mix up a three-egg omelette,’ says Rokkjaer. ‘In this hotel I’ll cook them in the kitchen but, if the kitchen’s a distance away, I’ll take a hob out to the table and cook them in the dining room. It’s quicker and means I can keep an eye on who’s coming down.’ 

Permanent pots

I mention the issue of catering envy. Grant at Tinkoff-Saxo and Kristiansen at Sky have mobile kitchens that dominate the hotel car parks. But those are mere pigeon fodder compared to Bora-Argon 18’s truck that measures 19m in length and includes a glass cube and trailer for the world to observe the alchemy within. Rokkjaer has to make do with sharing the kitchen with the Ibis chef, who’s becomingly increasingly agitated with the presence of a writer, dictaphone and photographer.

‘Don’t mind him,’ says Rokkjaer. ‘But kitchen envy? Not a bit of it. It would drive me mad working in a truck all day.’ Instead he liaises with the respective hotel manager and head chef beforehand to ensure there will be a little culinary corner of France reserved for him. By the look of this French chef, who oozes aggressive gallic flair when carving the cardboard tray of eggs in two – one for the public, one for Trek – the Tour chef requires the diplomacy skills of Kofi Annan.

Kim Rokkjaer loaf

‘Sometimes the kitchen’s main chef doesn’t want you there. That’s when I go to the hotel manager and say we have Alain Gallopin [DS, uncle to Tony and masseur to Laurent Fignon for 10 years] in the team. He still has power in France. I also compliment the chef on whatever they might be cooking at the time. A bit of charm often helps.’

The 43-year-old Dane clearly had it by the bucketful in 1999 when he met his wife. Rokkjaer was a head chef in Bordeaux at the time; his wife an au pair. ‘After that she went to university to study French – she’s Danish – and then she looked for a part-time job at my restaurant. So I gave her a lot of stress in the kitchen! We now have a girl of 17 and boy of 11.’

Similar to the riders, Rokkjaer is away from home for 140 days each year and has been since 2011, when he completed his first Tour. That’s not easy for anyone with family commitments but, in Rokkjaer’s case, it might have saved his marriage.

‘I used to sell wine and coffee, and I was fed up with it. I quit and was down for about six months. I didn’t work – I didn’t do anything. Things were tense between me and my wife. But then I had the opportunity to work on a privately owned super yacht, so I went to New Zealand for two months and was head chef for the rich owners. We were on this 66-metre boat with 18 staff and only six guests. I cooked for only 10 days during two months. The rest of the time was vacation, diving… It was amazing. Soon after I got a call from my friend Nicki Strobel.’

Kim Rokkjaer watch

Strobel is now cook for Orica-GreenEdge but was working for Saxobank at the time, in 2010. He’d broken his arm and asked Rokkjaer to cover for him at the Tour de Suisse. Rokkjaer agreed and it went well. The following season, the team split and morphed into Leopard Trek. Their cook had also morphed from Strobel into Rokkjaer. ‘I guess I took his job but we’re still friends. I think the team just wanted someone a little bit older.’

The French Tesco

Rokkjaer soon settled into a pattern. He’d bring basic condiments along to the races (‘stuff like olive oil, balsamic, jam, Nutella’) and then source fresh meat, fruit and veg locally. So does Rokkjaer spend his day seeking out the finest organic ham from nearby charcuteries? ‘No. I always go to Carrefour [the supermarket chain that sponsors the Tour]. They’re always well signed and easy to find.’

Sometimes he’ll source meat and fish from the hotel but only if the product – ‘and staff’ – are up to scratch. This is rare in France, even rarer in Spain. ‘The worst place to cook is in Spain. Nine out of 10 regions have no hygiene rules whatsoever. Once I saw 30 staff in the kitchen and they hadn’t washed their clothing for more than a month. They were hosting a wedding with maybe 600 people. I felt for those people. Three times in my career I’ve said to the doctor, “No one is eating here,” and always it’s in Spain.’ This proved a logistical nightmare. UCI rules mean the riders must stay in their hotel.

Kim Rokkjaer bread

Mollema is the last of the riders to leave the breakfast room. He’ll go on to have a disappointing day but, come Paris, he’ll recover to finish seventh overall. ‘The rest of my day today will be quite quiet,’ says Rokkjaer, sipping an espresso from the Trek coffee machine. ‘The riders come back here so the day is pretty clear. But I’ll make a special effort. It’s a tough stage, the start of the Alps, so I’ll source a nice piece of venison for tonight’s dinner. Part of my job is to ensure they recover quickly and properly, but none of them will do that if they don’t enjoy the food. Ultimately, beyond the science, that is the secret to fuelling every Tour rider.’

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