When American chef Sean Fowler opened his restaurant, El Racó d’Urús, in the Catalan Pyrenees, just southeast of Andorra, he had no idea it would lead to a life on the road with the Garmin-Cervélo pro cycling team.
But then in one day in the spring of 2008, Fowler was out riding his bike when Tom Danielson caught up with him. “He was actually lost,” Fowler remembers. “He asked me for directions.”
Danielson visited Fowler’s restaurant. Then he came back with the rest of the team, and they fell in love with Fowler’s food. The eclectic mixture of cuisines that draws influence from afar as Texas barbecue and as near as Pyrenean vegetable dishes had a special appeal to the riders.
“We had a neat bonding,” Fowler recalls. After having him cook for one of their training camps, the team asked Fowler if he would consider going on the road with them as their chef.
With three children and a restaurant to run full time, Fowler, who is originally from Colorado and trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, had to decline the offer. But as a dedicated cyclists who regularly puts 200 miles a week on the bike, the notion stuck with him.
“It was kind of bugging me the whole time,” he recalls while chopping garlic in his gleaming stainless steel mobile kitchen that’s parked behind a hotel in Toulouse, France. The next year he discussed the idea with his wife and fellow restauranteur, Olga. “What if we just try it this year, to see if we can do it?”
With their restaurant normally closed in July anyhow, they ended up feeding the team during the 2009 Tour de France, and it worked out. Fast forward to 2011, and the Fowlers’ kids are old enough to take care of themselves while mom and dad are at the Tour.
In 2011 they also fed the team at the Dauphine, the Tour of Switzerland and will support the team at the Vuelta a España in September. During the non-Tour races Olga stays at home and runs the restaurant with the help of their now-18-year old son.
With the help of a friend who is a sheet metal fabrication expert, Sean outfitted the rolling kitchen van himself. It has everything from heavy-duty cook stoves to an oven to auxiliary generator power.
Each night he Fowlers park in the team-hotel parking lot. When possible they plug into the hotel power and water supply. After cooking meals in the van, they carry them on serving platters into a hotel dining room for the riders.
In the morning they prepare breakfast, of which oatmeal is a staple. The Fowlers wash their cooking utensils and pots and pans in the van. The hotels take care of cleaning the riders’ plates and utensils.
When he started working with the team, Sean says he found the logistics involved with running a pro cycling team astonishing.
“The entire infrastructure was, even to this day, mind boggling,” he says while shaking his head in disbelief at how much stuff and how many people Garmin-Cervélo has moving around the world at any one time. He says that as part of those logistics himself, he strives to bring the same standards he demands at his restaurant to the cuisine he prepares on the road.
Watching the couple work in their the tiny kitchen, it’s clear the Fowlers put a lot of care into every meal. Olga carefully constructs a tower of lightly roasted vegetables with a single slice of organic cheese that is then covered with fresh marinara sauce. “I just invented it!” She says with delight.
Meanwhile, Sean prepares a dish that starts out with scallops, freshly chopped garlic and Spanish olive oil. The couple sources all their food on the road, buying organic whenever it is available. They avoid difficult-to-digest items like cabbage because, when they are riding over 100 miles a day for weeks on end, the riders do not want or need slow-digesting foods in their gut. However, Sean says it can sometimes be difficult to find what they need in some of the more remote areas of France where shops are either tiny or closed.
As for why the team decided to invest in a separate cooking staff and truck, Fowler says it is to maintain “quality and security.” When depending on a separate hotel staff most every night at a stage race, the team loses control over both, since they are not sourcing the food and maintaining kitchen standards.
Tyler Farrar says the team deeply appreciates the Fowlers’ cuisine. A couple days after winning his first Tour stage in Redon, Farrar said the food hotels serve can be less then desirable, especially for athletes demanding of much of their bodies as Tour riders.
“The food at the Tour de France if you eat the hotel food is terrible,” Farrar says. Also, Farrar notes that he actually grows weary of eating as much as his body requires—up to 4,000 calories a day on long stages. “By the third week of a grand tour you get tired of eating so much. And if you are tired of eating and the food is not good, you don’t eat enough.”
With the Fowlers preparing meals, working up an appetite is not a problem. “When it’s good you can keep making sure you eat enough to recover everyday and keep going.”
One way the Fowlers keep riders interested in their meals is by providing a varying menu. Farrar says he likes that he riders get something different every night, and when they do see the same recipe twice, it’s because it’s a favorite that they want to try again.
Asked why more teams don’t use a traveling chef, Sean theorizes it’s a matter of money. When the Tour de France invites a team to race, the race organizer, ASO, covers the team’s hotel and meal costs. For a team to pay for its own chef is essentially turning down this benefit.
Sean says the return on working for the team has turned out to be more than financial. He’s gained friendships with the riders and staff. “I’ve made really good friends with David Millar. His wife has become friends with Olga. They go on walks. They come to our house. We go to their house.” More than job making fine foods on the road, being the team’s European chef has enriched the Fowler’s lives as well.
More photos from the Tour de France:
In 2011 Mark Johnson is writing and photographing a book on Garmin-Cervélo to be published by VeloPress in early 2012. You can follow his travels with the team on Twitter @argylearmada