DOHA, Qatar -- It was a mid-September evening in southern Spain. A chair was pulled aside in the dining room where the United States men's national team was eating. Everyone stopped to watch. A rite of passage was at hand.
The rule is clear: You must sing. Players, coaches, staff -- no matter the position, every incoming member of the U.S. Soccer program must do it. And so Giulio Caccamo, the ever-smiling and energetic new executive chef for the Americans, clambered up on the chair and prepared to serenade the crowd.
"Everyone had told me the same advice, just get up there and sing an old Italian song that no one understands and then you can sit down," said Caccamo, who grew up among the canals of Venice. "I said, 'No way!' I'm not going to do that."
He laughed. "So I sang Elvis."
The players cheered, and Caccamo beamed. Theirs is an unlikely connection. Caccamo was raised in Italy, and he spent much of his professional career working internationally in restaurants from the Middle East to South America.
How, then, did he end up cooking for the U.S.? The short answer, as you might expect, is simple: They liked his food.
Caccamo was working at the Intercontinental Hotel in San Salvador last fall when the U.S. played El Salvador in World Cup qualifying. U.S. Soccer doesn't typically have a full-time chef; they generally just work with the chef at whatever hotel they're staying at while on the road to set up their meals. But in El Salvador, federation staff, including coach Gregg Berhalter, were impressed by Caccamo's efficiency and attention to detail during preparations for their visit.
Then, more importantly, everyone loved what he made.
Conversations were had. An agreement was reached. Caccamo began working on menus and connecting with the team's nutritionists over email, then joined the U.S. for their September training camp ahead of the World Cup. That was where Caccamo went through the singing ritual, and also where he strengthened his relationships with the players and staff. Berhalter, a noted foodie, had a very specific subject he wanted to discuss: What are the intricacies that go into making a proper and authentic amatriciana?
"As an Italian, those are conversations I love," Caccamo said with pride.
In Qatar, Caccamo's workload is significant. Overseeing every meal for 26 players and dozens more support staff throughout a weekslong tournament takes precise planning, not to mention endless hours of actual cooking. Caccamo is also juggling a variety of dietary needs and preferences. (Among other things, two U.S. players are vegan, and there's one person in the group with a pine nut allergy.)
At all hours of the day and night, Caccamo and a team of 12 staffers work out of a kitchen inside the Marsa Malaz Kempinski, where the U.S. are staying, that is separate from the one used by the hotel restaurants. Caccamo also makes occasional trips to local vegetable stands or fish markets to bring in the freshest ingredients possible.
"He's fantastic, honestly," said forward Tim Weah, who has plenty of access to high-quality gastronomy on a regular basis because he has lived in France for the past five years. "He's really thoughtful and creative," Weah added, "and he changes things up enough that it's never boring. That's really big."
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In terms of flavors, the mostly young U.S. team fairly represent their generational norms: Burritos, quesadillas and, really, anything one might be able to get at Chipotle are staples, especially ahead of an important match. That's no problem for Caccamo, though he did say that cooking for athletes -- as opposed to well-heeled hotel guests -- required a small shift in philosophy.
At a restaurant, flavor is king: you do whatever is necessary in terms of seasoning, he said, to make sure your customers enjoy their meal. With athletes, though, simply adding more butter (or oil or salt or sugar) to a recipe isn't really an option when your clientele needs to run 90 minutes in extreme heat and excruciating pressure. Still, Caccamo embraces that challenge and tries to use varieties of cuisine -- "some days we'll go to Japan, some days we'll go to Mexico or Brazil" -- to keep the players' palettes engaged.
Then there are the special requests: Sergino Dest, for example, famously devours plain bread before a match (ideally a baguette), and Caccamo said he has ensured a steady production of fresh loaves each morning, including gluten-free bread for those who prefer it. Caccamo also has to work on a cake recipe, as Yunus Musah's birthday is Nov. 29 and the team will want to celebrate their midfielder turning 20.
All of it is exciting for Caccamo, who said the best part of working with the U.S. team is the sense of unity he has found within the group. His beloved Italy team didn't qualify for the World Cup -- "Next question, please," he said politely when asked for his thoughts -- so Caccamo is committed, both emotionally and professionally, to helping the U.S. players go as far as possible.
"I'm working, but it feels like I'm in a family and it's just so wonderful," he said. "I know that I have a part to play, too. I want, every day, for the players to come into the room saying, 'Let's see what Chef has for us today!' I want my food to help them be excited about what they are doing."