Gold medal for the 'Olympics chef'
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil:
HE WALKS around with a GraceKennedybranded toque blanche on his head,, but if you ask any of the athletes here at Jamaica’s pre-Olympic training base at the Linx Hotel in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, executive chef Karl Thomas deserves a gold medal around his neck.
Thomas, a Washington Gardens resident, has been cooking professionally in the hospitality sector for the past 18 years and, thanks to GraceKennedy, is catering to Jamaica’s Olympians for the second time after also feeding the team ahead of the 2012 Games in London.
It’s a challenging experience and a huge responsibility considering the past issues related to food served at major championships, but one Thomas has embraced with both hands – literally.
Thomas, who has worked closely with GraceKennedy over the past few years, was again asked to bring a taste of home to the Jamaican athletes who are preparing for the August 5-21 Olympic Games here.
His cooking has made the complaints around the food available at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, nothing more than a distant memory for those who were also a part of the team then.
“The feedback has been very positive from everyone,” he told The Gleaner from his office space at Linx. “I’m beginning to think they are putting on a show to make me feel good. There is no way that so many persons can be so pleased about anything.”
“I’m just happy to make this sort of impact on the team generally. I’m honoured to be asked to do something like this again. I will always be thought about in this regard and that’s an amazing feeling,” he shared.
“Its important that they have familiar food and that they are comfortable with what they are eating when they prepare for competitions like this, so that they can perform to their best when it’s time for that,” Thomas added.
That familiar food includes everyone’s favourite – oxtail, then there is always a variety of other Jamaican staples, such as the chicken, fish, pork, stewed peas and curried mutton. Soups, porridges, fried plantain, fried and boiled dumplings, yam, dasheen, steamed cabbage, fruit cakes, sweet potato pudding, cornmeal pudding and, of course, ackee and salt-fish.
“Every day they are there in large numbers, eating large amounts of food,” Thomas laughed. “I’m happy that they are happy with the food. Some have been saying that they have to stop coming to the dining room so often and that I am awful because I am giving them too much food, but my disclaimer is that I am here to do the best possible job I can.”
That job starts at 4:30 every morning when he starts preparing for breakfast, which is usually ready at 8 a.m. As soon as that is cleared, he immediately prepares lunch, then dinner and must then find time to do some of the work for the next day’s breakfast. This usually takes him beyond midnight. For him, it’s a like a long day every day.
“We are in a hotel-type environment and the kitchen is much smaller than in Birmingham when we were in camp ahead of the London Olympics, for instance, so that is something I have to compensate for. I have to start a lot earlier. We have to do a lot of items ahead of time and put in storage, so it’s a little taxing in terms of timing and so on,” Thomas explained.
“Quite a few persons have little preferences or nuances – whether they are lactose intolerant, or they request special juices, a certain cut of meat – you want to cater to them as best as you can.”
Coach Glen Mills, for instance, doesn’t like his porridge too sweet, so Thomas makes it his duty to separate Mills’ portion before he sweetens the pot.
He ensures there is a wide spread and the necessary options to ensure the athletes are enriched with the right nutrients ahead of their competition.
It’s the sort of attention they will not get when they move into the Athletes’ Village in a few days.
Thomas is not allowed to join them there, but he will hang around Rio to cater at a special Independence Day event that is being organised.
He is also hoping to take up the hotel staff’s offer to take him to see the city’s sights before he heads back to Jamaica on August 7 and although he will miss the mouths he has been feeding for the past week or so, he is already thinking about what he will do for them on their last day here.
“I will wave them ‘bye bye’ and then go to my room to finally get some sleep,” he laughed. “Maybe I will give them some fried chicken – they will love that. Definitely some oxtail, rice and peas is a must for them – yea, that will be their send-off dish.”
There’s hardly anything more Jamaican than that.
Still, the experience has again left an indelible mark on Thomas, as it clearly has on the stomachs of the country’s track stars – if their social media posts are anything to go by.
“It really feels good when you have spoken to that person, you share moments with them and you see them on the track representing their country, so that really feels good. This is an honour for me.”