Cooking up an Olympic plan
Sriracha, spices and almonds top Allen Tran's unorthodox packing list when he prepares for trips.
As the high-performance chef for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, he travels far and wide to put food on the tables of some of America's best athletes. At his kitchen at the USSA Center of Excellence training facility in Park City, Utah, at the souped-up food truck that chases snow across the mountains of Europe, and at the USSA's private complex in Sochi, he is responsible for planning and preparing meals that contribute to gold-medal performances and post-competition recovery.
Tran's roots in the food world run deep. With an undergraduate degree in restaurant management, the 28-year-old is well versed in fine dining, having previously worked at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, Calif. He is also a registered dietitian and holds a master's in sports nutrition. Unsurprisingly, he has always seen his gastronomical pursuits as inextricably linked to his long list of recreational interests, including canyoneering, rock climbing, mountain biking and Olympic-style weightlifting.
Living by the adage "Nutrition can make a good athlete great or a great athlete good," Chef Tran takes his job very seriously, especially when it comes to the Olympic Games.
"Nutrition is literally the fuel that powers athletic performance," he explained. "While most will agree physical training is essential to an athlete's preparation, that training can't be optimal if the fuel isn't optimal."
With that said, he insists his first priority is good taste. From Jamaican jerk chicken to tacos and turkey burgers, he carefully crafts meals that are amenable across a wide variety of tastes and dietary requirements.
"I also try to infuse an aspect of home into their meals, which they enjoy. and it helps them relax in foreign locales," he added.
Sriracha sauce is a perennial favorite among the athletes, prompting Tran to often suggest they take a bottle on the road when he's not there to cook for them.
"USSA athletes like spicy food and that condiment can just lift a variety of dishes," he said.
The next consideration is nutrition. The needs of a cross-country skier competing in a 50km race are far different from those of athletes taking on the giant slalom or halfpipe.
"All athletes need a combination of lean protein, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and nutrient-dense fruits and veggies for peak performance," said Tran. "It's the ratio of the nutrients that is specifically tailored to each sport."
For the more strength-based events, he places a greater emphasis on protein. For endurance races, carbohydrates are of more concern. Providing quick energy and minimal stomach upset, fast-burning carbs, like bananas, oranges, juice and toast with jam, are often preferred before competition.
Whether it's between events or in training, fast recovery is important. To facilitate muscle repair and replenish glycogen stores, Tran pushes protein and carbs almost immediately after activity. Since it is usually impossible to make it to the dinner table as soon as competition wraps up, the athletes often tote almonds -- "packed with protein, won't spoil, and are easy to grab and go for a good recovery option" -- on the mountain. With Blue Diamond Almonds as a USSA sponsor, Tran is able to offer plenty of flavors to entice them to comply.
When it comes to planning and preparing meals in Sochi, Tran anticipates it'll be a little like an episode of "Top Chef." Considering the ingredients he will have access to, along with the foods he can pack and ship to Russia, it will be an exercise in logistics and creative thinking.
"Athletes crave familiarity, but Sochi brings many challenges and unknowns that need to be addressed," he said. "Unfortunately, we may need to problem-solve on the fly due to these unknowns."
Luckily for Tran, he'll have access to a full kitchen, along with a team of chefs hailing from various USOC training centers across the country.
"We have a menu of 'greatest hits' from our time cooking for the athletes, and we will attempt to recreate those in Russia," he said. "There are also some Russian ingredients, like beets, dairy and potatoes, that are very high-quality and we will incorporate into our recipes."
While the athletes won't be gorging themselves on borscht and pirozhki, they'll have plenty of time to venture outside Chef Tran's kitchen post-competition, and most have come to trust in what he is serving up.
"The athletes know I deeply care about putting out good food, so they are moving toward eating it with no questions asked, saying, 'Allen made it, so it has to be good.'"