- The Washington Times - Friday, August 6, 2004

PHILADELPHIA — When it comes to serving food to the world’s top athletes at the Summer Olympics in Athens, almost everything comes supersized.

There’s a 42,000-square-foot kitchen, hundreds of tons of meat and produce, millions of gallons of bottled water and thousands of voracious swimmers, runners, weight lifters and others who want tasty cuisine — and lots of it — all the time.

“They’ll normally double up and triple up their portions, so we’re talking about two or three pounds of food per meal, and three or four meals per day, for each athlete,” Michael R. Crane, senior executive chef of Aramark, said in a telephone interview from Athens.

The Philadelphia-based food-service company estimates it will serve more than 2 million meals to athletes, coaches and officials in Athens for two months, including the 17 days of competition.

The company has had to contend with construction delays, concerns over security arrangements to stop terrorists and a blackout that hit Athens on July 12, but Aramark officials said things will be running smoothly by the time the games open Aug. 13.

“There are some things that are a little time-sensitive. Roads are congested, you’ve got construction, and a lot of things happening everywhere,” Marc Bruno, a vice president for Aramark’s International Group, said from Athens. “It’s all going to come together.”

Aramark, which has run food services at 12 previous Olympics, is partnering with Greek hospitality company Daskalantonakis Group to feed some 10,500 athletes from a record 201 countries, along with coaches and Olympic officials.

In all, 85 Aramark executives and chefs are managing and staffing the kitchens in Athens, along with more than 1,000 students from U.S. and Greek culinary schools and colleges providing assistance.

Aramark expects to serve 24,000 meals a day — 55,000 a day during peak times like opening and closing ceremonies.

Chefs in Philadelphia conducted six months of taste-testings for the hundreds of different international meals, like vegetables with peanut sauce, Brazilian fish stew and Moroccan lemon chicken with olives. Then they had to come up with extremely precise ingredient measurements.

“If you’re off by a little salt, a little anything, and you blow up the recipe to 8,000 portions, you end up being off by a huge amount” that throws off the taste and the nutritional values, Mr. Crane said.

There will be 15 to 16 entrees available on each menu, created by hundreds of chefs from Britain, Canada, Chile, Germany, Japan, Korea and elsewhere. The menus were planned with vegetarian, vegan, kosher and halal diets in mind and feature tastes from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the Americas as well as Greece.

Hits and misses on the menu become clear right away when you’re feeding thousands.

“As you get into large-volume production, you quickly come to understand what’s popular and what’s not,” Mr. Crane said. “There’s a little bit of a learning curve for the first week, then we make adjustments and modifications as we go.”

This year, they’re waiting to see if the low-carbohydrate trend will turn up in the Olympic village. Don’t count on it, at least among the athletes, said Stanley Segall, a professor of nutrition at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

“My suspicion is that athletes who want to maximize their performance are not going to go on a low-carb regimen,” he said. Coaches and officials, however, “may try as much to follow the regimen they have at home, so you may see it more among the other groups.”

Athens’ cuisine will reflect lessons Aramark learned from past Summer Olympic forays in Atlanta and Sydney, Australia. Among them: Spicy is good.

“We thought that we should modify the flavorings and tone down the traditionally spicy dishes, but the athletes told us loud and clear: ‘We want the heat; we want the real thing,’” Mr. Crane said. “They want foods with the flavorings they’re used to — curry pastes, fish sauces, different kinds of miso.”

And, just because they’re Olympians doesn’t mean they don’t love junk food. “If you think that athletes don’t eat a lot of sweets, I’m here to tell you that they do,” Mr. Crane said. ”

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