Let’s get this question out of the way first: why are so many WorldTour chefs from Denmark, Hannah? Her young assistant, Rune, jumps in with a theory: “Because we are shit good!”
I take this to mean they are all jolly fine cooks. Hannah Grant’s explanation is a little longer, rather more complicated, but makes better sense. Turns out, it’s a matter of who you know, but the starting point was Bjarne Riis at CSC.
“Bjarne hired Søren. It was for hygiene and safety reasons, as much as anything else: to ensure the food was safe to eat and nicely cooked. Søren went to Sky, so Bjarne hired Torsten Schmidt.”
Mr Schmidt, in case you were unaware, is something of a ‘celebrity chef’, for want of a better description. Noma’s René Redzepi called him “one of the pioneers within Nordic regional cuisine.” Maybe not the best fit for feeding nine ravenous cyclists whilst trying to run an expanding empire back home, then. He didn’t stay long.
“Nicki Strobel [now at Orica-GreenEdge] was Torsten’s assistant. When there was the team split between Leopard and Saxobank-Sungard, Nicki was offered the job at Leopard and I got the position at Saxo,” she says.
Kim Rokkjaer covered the Tour de Suisse for Nicki in 2011 and got his foot in the door. He has been with what is now known as Trek Factory Racing since the Radioshack-Leopard merger in 2012.
And there you have it. Within the space of a few seasons, the chances of finding a Danish chef behind the scenes had grown exponentially.
Hannah and Rune are busy prepping for the evening meal when we drop by. I had envisaged the entire team backroom staff sitting down to their fine cooking once the riders were taken care of. This was, of course, a preposterous idea. “The whole team is based around the riders,” says Hannah, remarkably controlled under the circumstances. “The soigneurs don’t wash our clothes or massage anyone else – it’s the same thing. We get up before everyone else and go to bed after everyone else, so if we have to make breakfast for staff, we’ve got to get up before we go to bed!
“As Bjarne always says, we have got to remember we are here because of the riders: that is the priority.”
Rune and Hannah get stuffing
Suitably chastised, we step aboard Hannah and Rune’s voluminous mobile catering truck, designed head-to-tail by Hannah herself. The fridge, that can store four days of supplies, is bigger than anything you’ll see in a Smeg catalogue. “I really love it. I have machines and equipment that most smaller restaurants would only dream of having.”
She got the design pretty dialled-in, apart from the flooring and drainage. Team boss Oleg Tinkov insisted on adding a wine rack, which makes him a good employer in my book.
Rune has stuffed whole chickens with leeks, apples and herbs. Chicken is always on the menu, but with a different twist each day to keep it interesting. “The Spanish riders like it plain, but the others go crazy if it’s just plain pasta and chicken for a month straight, so we always combine. Chicken every day: everyone can agree on that, so there is always chicken and then an alternative.
“And a lot of menu planning is according to the group: how they combine, who’s in charge will dictate a lot of habits to the others, because they want to show that they’re up to his standards.”
Alberto Contador loves his chicken and pasta. And he’s the big cheese on the Vuelta, so you better like chicken if you want to be in his gang. Anthony Bourdain, celebrated chef and author of the scurrilous memoir Kitchen Confidential back in 2000, refers to chicken as “a menu item for people who don’t know what they want to eat,” which I think is both spot on and funny. Hannah shoots me a look that says Bourdain’s quip is neither correct nor amusing. We’d best move on before young Rune slices and dices myself and Jakob and stores our remains in the massive fridge.
Hannah knows her way around a Michelin-starred restaurant, from both a work perspective and as a paying customer. Chefs love to know what everybody else is up to, and Ferran Adrià’s amazing sensory experience, El Bulli, in Catalonia, was a must-do in its day for foodies and professional cooks alike.
“I was lucky enough to eat there before it closed down in 2011. It was, for me, not about sitting down and getting a meal that is pleasurable. He wants to provoke you, and he wants you out of your comfort zone. It was like sucking the brain out of half a bird skull – that kind of provocation.
“You don’t even decide when you go to the bathroom, they do! That’s how it rolls. We had 52 courses. It was a wild experience.”
If that sounds like an evening of purgatory to you, perhaps you and Hannah are not made of the same stuff. She has attitude and balls – for want of a better word – to spare. “You have got to push yourself in everything: the stuff you are scared of, and you don’t like, you have to go for it. You might not like it, but you need to make the effort.”
Hannah made the effort and moved out of Denmark having graduated from cookery school, working at Heston Blumenthal’s renowned Fat Duck in Berkshire. “That’s where I met my husband. I met an American in England and brought him home. He works at Noma as head of research and development, and I used to work there, but it is too hard for us both to do. I have no desire to go back to a service job in a restaurant now. This is better.”
She had to learn fast on the job: “The first year, I spent so much time at home trying to plan everything, and then it is 32 degrees on the day and you have a nice warming stew, or you can’t get your ingredients…”
Pizza tomorrow, boys. You've earned it
Tonight, the riders will be tucking into pork cheeks, marinated the previous day, unless of course they prefer the chicken option, which does look fabulous (I take it all back about chicken). The night before a rest day, Hannah will have a special blow-out treat to lift the guy’s spirits, “burger or pizza – not a crappy one but a good one, and they love things like that.”
This is the fact that shocked me: over the space of a three-week tour, a rider would, you’d think, lose weight. Not necessarily, says Hannah. “They are constantly hungry, more hungry than they actually need, and if they keep eating, they gain weight, even though they are in a Grand Tour. It’s incredible.
“So it is a fine balance. For a rider to gain half a kilo is a big deal. The experienced riders, it’s not a problem. The neo-pros, you’ve got to be on them and remind them not to stuff their stomachs with starch. If they stay the same, that’s fine, but if they gain, that is a problem.”
It is our third day on the Vuelta. We are wasting away, but finally, finally, we get to taste some food that the chefs have produced. Hannah pulls out the vanilla and lemon zest ice cream from the freezer (not even made with cream: how do you do that?) Just a spoonful is enough: it is fabulous, of course.
Her Grand Tour Cookbook, currently in Danish only, will be available in English in the next few weeks. I’ll be queuing up to get my copy signed.
From issue 50