The 2004 Olympic Games have their official opening tomorrow. The athletes have been training for years to get themselves into peak condition for their attempt to be one of the lucky few to stand on the highest step of the podium, clutching a gold medal.
But the athletes are not the only ones who have been working hard to make sure they give their best performance in Athens. Contract caterer Aramark has also spent the past two years training hard and working on how it is going to fulfil all the nutritional needs and personal preferences of the 24,000 athletes, coaches and officials it will feed at the Olympic Village in the Greek capital.
Aramark, which has provided catering services at 12 previous Olympic Games, has teamed up with the Greece-based Daskalantonakis (Dasko) Group for this year's event. This year Aramark Dasko will provide a "world menu" for athletes, with a focus on local Greek cuisine and products.
The company's senior executive chef for the Olympics, Mike Crane, says: "Greece is brimming with a bounty of fresh foods and resources, and we are lucky to have such a selection for our meals. By using a range of high-quality local products, we are maximising the freshness and flavour of the foods we are preparing."
He adds: "Product sourcing and menu planning have been intensive. Like the athletes, we only have one chance. Operations need to go smoothly, so athletes can get the meals they want and need quickly, and get to their designated events."
Throughout the games, more than 1,500 items will be served around the clock in the Olympic Village. Athletes can customise their menus to meet their own nutritional needs, with vegetarian, vegan, halal, kosher and other special dietary requirements all catered for.
The "world menu" will feature flavours from around the globe, so diners from every country can get a taste of home. Designated restaurants within the village include the International, featuring the foods of Central and South America, North Africa, Italy and Spain; the Central Asian, with Thai, Chinese, Indonesian and Japanese dishes; and the Traditional Greek.
Mike Twissel is one of a handful of UK Aramark staff who have secured the opportunity to work at the Athens games. But Twissel, who is usually based in Dorset as head chef at Weymouth College, is not a complete stranger to the event, as his father, Charlie, took part in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne as part of the last British Olympic football squad. "I hope I last a little longer, though," says Twissel (Great Britain lost 6-1 to Bulgaria in the second round).
He first set his sights on Athens in January when he saw a notice in Aramark's in-house magazine, The Mark, about catering at the games. He sent his CV to Crane and in April, after several telephone interviews, received a letter welcoming him to the 2004 Olympic catering team. Twissel, who is excited to be part of Aramark's massive operation, arrived in Athens on 18 July and will stay until 3 October.
"It's great to come here and work with people from other nations, to circulate with those people and learn new methods of cooking," he says. "It's a great opportunity to network and make new friends. The only thing I'm not looking forward to is going back home. I'll turn up in shorts and flip-flops in October and be freezing!"
During Twissel's three-month stint in Athens, he will work as a picker, getting all the food out of the fridges and prepared for the 55,000 meals Aramark expects to serve each day.
And his day is likely to be just as demanding as any athlete's. He is up at 4am to catch a lift to the Olympic Village at 5am, where the day starts at 5.30am and isn't likely to finish until about 6pm, when Twissel will have done a fair few 100m sprints himself, going back and forth across the kitchens. He will also be helping to train some of the students who have been enlisted to work in the kitchens during the games, which Twissel says will be very rewarding.
The only problem he might encounter, says Twissel, is the language barrier. "Smiling and laughing gets you a long way, though, and I expect to do a lot of that," he says.
The catering operations at the village are awe-inspiring. Twissel says that his first glimpse of the dining room, which can seat 6,000 people at one time, was breathtaking and that he has never seen anything quite like it before. There are ovens, griddles and grills almost everywhere you look, he says, with a long bank of about 70 wells for the tonnes of food to be served from.
As food provides the energy that will help the athletes to achieve their dreams of Olympic gold, Aramark has taken a lot of time and care to make sure the Olympians are getting all their calorific and nutritional needs satisfied. While the British Hospitality Association last week slammed calls to put calorie counts next to each dish in restaurants in the UK, Aramark has done just that in Athens. All menus have calorie, carbohydrate and fat contents listed, so that the athletes can see exactly what they are fuelling their bodies with. There's even a nutritionist on site to answer any questions.
Since Twissel arrived in Athens, the Olympic Village has been doing about 15% of the business it expects to do when the games get fully into their stride. "After the opening, we are going to have to pick up a gear," says Twissel. "I think it might be a bit of a shock to the system but, once we get into the swing of things, I'm sure everything will be great."
- The Olympic Village dining hall covers 147,000sq ft and seats about 6,000 at one time.
- The Olympic Village kitchen took 20 full-time workers four months to install.
- The kitchen has more than 7,500sq ft of refrigerated space.
- The 17 fryers in the kitchen can produce more than a tonne of French fries per hour.
- A crew of more than 2,000 Aramark Dasko employees will be needed to satisfy the cravings of the hungry Olympians.
Olympic Village chefs' shopping list - 53,550kg of beef
- 32,400kg of lamb
- 82,800kg of chicken
- 48,600kg of pork
- 12,400kg of pasta
- 9,000kg of rice
- 79,650kg of potatoes
- 3,600kg of kimchi (a spiced and fermented Korean cabbage dish)
- 20 tonnes of eggs
What they'll eat The athletes staying in the Olympic Village are expected to consume:
- 300 tonnes of fruit and vegetables (more than 80 varieties)
- 675,255 portions of salad
- 23,400kg of cheese (more than 12 dozen kinds)
- 25,000 loaves of bread (more than 25 varieties)
- 8,235kg of butter
- 4,050kg of tofu
Olympic menu The Olympic Village menu will feature more than 1,200 items, including:
- 350 hot main entrée dishes
- 60 vegetable and potato dishes
- 50 rice and pasta dishes
- 50 different dessert, pastry and bakery items
- 60 dozen different condiments