The Tour de France's Star Chef Is Reinventing How Pro Cyclists Eat
Chef Hannah Grant, who embedded with team Orica-Scott and is also the star of an upcoming Amazon docuseries, is bringing a culinary revolution to the world's most grueling endurance races.
This July, chef Hannah Grant prepared every meal for Team Orica-Scott during her sixth Tour de France and her sixteenth Grand Tour (the Tour de France, Vuelta a España and Giro d’Italia). While she’s cooked for cyclists for five years and even wrote a cookbook about it (The Grand Tour,) she started the way most chefs do: grinding so hard in restaurants that her hips and knees will ache forever. Grant, who lives in Copenhagen on the rare days she’s not traversing countries with cyclists, says the intensity of working in kitchens is no match for that of cooking new menus every day for exhausted, grumpy professional athletes. “By day ten, everyone slowly starts to crack a little bit, whether crying or breaking down,” she says. On day 21 of the Tour, Grant is exuberant and chatty, despite waking up at 4 a.m. that morning to hop on a boat with a Marseille fisherman and catch tuna for dinner. She gets goosebumps of excitement three times during our hour-long conversation. If she’s breaking down, she’s doing it in private.
The penultimate stage of the Tour is in Marseille; here, Grant tells me there are “several ways of being tired.” Traveling to a new town and creating a new menu each day, all while being filmed for an upcoming Amazon Unscripted series, happens to be tiresome in every imaginable way. There’s the physical fatigue of nonstop travel—her small team drives in two trucks, which they cook in, to all 21 stages of the Tour (plus two rest days)—and then there’s the more taxing mental fatigue of dealing with other people’s moods.
“The guys are top performing athletes, but they’re human beings,” Grant says. “They also get tired and frustrated—same with my team. One of my drivers came to me and just started crying. He was like, ‘I can’t do this.’ It’s like river rafting. You get on it, and you just go. The Tour waits for no one.”
Every day, regardless of who’s breaking down and how hard, Grant must conceptualize and execute a nutritious yet compelling menu for the nine-person Orica-Scott team. Her most important task? Making sure no one gets diarrhea during a race. (She won’t touch shellfish for this reason.) Her second most important task is ensuring the cyclists are actually eating; it becomes daunting for them to hit over 7,000 calories a day. Grant’s role as a chef, then, is to prepare dishes that inspire them to shovel down as much as is bearable, while ideally offering them some joy and comfort after a brutal stage. Every night, she prepares a chicken dish—because everyone agrees on chicken—and some other type of protein, whether lamb or beef or fish, depending on access and the team’s requests. There need to be a minimum of two starches, usually at least one rice, pasta or potato. Vegetables are important for antioxidants and vitamins, yes, but not nearly as important as carbs, which must be constantly consumed, even when they wake up to use the bathroom. (“I’ll just grab a yogurt,” a cyclist tells me.) As the Tour progresses, Grant’s culinary strategy shifts. The game is mental.
“In the beginning we’ll have raw food-style salads, but as we move towards the other half of the Tour, which increases in intensity with more mountain stages, we need to be gentler on their systems,” Grant says. “The further you get into the race, the food has to be more comforting, too. You start out with basics, and then you show them what you can do, and they get excited, and you start to make interesting things, and then they get tired. Then you need to turn it down on the super advanced things and make more comfort foods. Because the last third of the Tour, you have to make sure they eat.”
That’s right: They don’t always want to eat, even when they’re burning in one day what normal people burn in a week. “At the start of the Tour you’re hungry, but you shouldn’t eat too much,” says Orica-Scott team member Esteban Chaves. “But then at the end of the Tour you’re not hungry, but you should eat more.” During the last few meals of the race, the deliciousness of the food becomes even more essential. “For us, carbs are the main dish, while for other people it’s a side,” adds team member Michael Albasini. “That’s why the flavor of the meals is so important, because it helps you eat two plates.” Flavorful risotto, for example, is always preferable to plain rice; they serve the same nutritional purpose, but cyclists will eat more of the former.
The notion of foods tasting good is relatively new to the world of professional cycling. When Grant started, cyclists’ diets were calculated to meet basic energy needs. The staples were grilled chicken, sauce-less pasta, iceberg salad buffets and lots of ketchup to help it all go down—the main tenant of nutrition, at the time, was low-fat. The only reason a team would even have a chef was to prepare food that was safe (the No Diarrhea Principle) and served on time. Grant was one of the first cycling chefs to focus on the mental part of the meal, and now her brand of culinary thoughtfulness has reverberated throughout the Tour.
“They need to look forward to something—sitting down around a table and talking and having a good experience,” Grant says. “And that sometimes is just as important as the actual nutrition. If it was just about nutrition, everyone would just make a sludge that had everything you needed.”
Yet sometimes the cyclists are resistant to the creative liberties Grant takes with the basic formula, and team chefs can only get so creative. As Grant puts it, “Bike riders don’t want to eat twelve courses every day, and they don’t give a shit about foams and gels and the pride of the chef.” In the beginning of the Tour she opted for whole, organic foods and somewhat advanced dishes—preparing what she calls a “mecca of beautiful, delicious foods”—but people resented her for it. “For bike riders who were used to eating white pasta, white rice, grilled chicken and a salad buffet every fucking day for years and years, this was a major shock,” she says. “They were like, ‘Who are you? Why are you doing this to me? ‘What is this?’”
Take broccoli, a food that Grant calls “dangerous”—one that she had to essentially trick the team into eating. Cyclists don’t always feel that they need vegetables, she says, as they don’t have the highest energetic value. But Grant, who works with nutrition scientist Stacy Simms to design the meals, needs to maximize their intake of antioxidants and vitamins.
“The golden rule is to take two things in the safe zone—two things that they like a lot—and then add one thing that they are suspicious about, so that the dangerous food is too difficult to pick out, but the majority of what they like is in there, so they have to eat it,” Grant says. One night during the Tour she prepared a salmon dish with a lovely orange-ginger marinade, knowing that the cyclists loved ginger and sweet sauces, despite their general distrust of fish. “Everyone was very scared of fish for some reason,” she says. “One thing I’ve found is to keep the fish whole so they can see what it is. Don’t try to cut it up and blend it with something because that makes it even more suspicious when they catch you. The salmon thing was all about figuring how to make them eat it. They are very hooked on sugar, so if I could make it sweet in the beginning, I could lure them in that way.”
Whether in a parking lot cooking dinner or on the road driving to the Tour’s next stage, Grant is ordinarily the only woman around. Her team is men, the cyclists are men, the staff is men. Cycling is dominated by men, and people remind her of this periodically, even when she’s too busy roasting a whole lamb to notice she’s different. At one race, a sports director approached her and told her she didn’t belong. “It’s intense to be told straight to your eyes, ‘You’re not going to last here,’” Grant says. “In restaurants, too, I worked as hard as anyone else, and I only noticed I was different when people pointed it out, like…That’s where you have to show you deserve your spot. I’ve worked my ass off to be better and faster so as not to have anyone point out that I don’t fit in. I’m like, ‘Well, fuck you, I’m going to show you I belong here.’”
The sun is setting as Grant and her apprentice prep her final meal for Team Orica-Scott: steak, frites, roasted carrots and fresh tuna sashimi. She hands me a sliver of raw fish; it tastes like the Mediterranean. Tomorrow morning, Orica-Scott will ride to Paris for their final stage, and Grant will head to Paris, too, and try to relax. Her official chef duties will be over, as after the race, the cyclists will eat ceremonial pizza and beer.
“When people hear that you work at the Tour, they have this very romantic idea of how it is,” she says, salting steak. “It’s a lot of parking lots. To go to Paris is really big. I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it.”