By Olga NEDBAEVA
With France slowly weaning itself off its traditional obsession with meat, the top chefs in charge of feeding the sporting masses at the 2024 Olympic Games are emphasising a more vegetarian approach.
Michelin-starred chef Akrame Benallal serves plenty of steaks, burgers and other meat in his restaurants, but his flagship dish for the Games will be muesli with quinoa.
“When there are 40,000 meals per day, I don’t want anyone to be let down. I want people who eat kosher to eat with me, people who eat halal, the Christians and Buddhists too,” he said.
“It’s vegetables that unite everyone,” he added.
He is one of three award-winning chefs overseeing the French food for the 15,000 athletes of the Olympic Village next summer.
Another is Alexandre Mazzia, a former professional basketball player, who is offering recipes based around chickpeas, peas and smoked beetroot, and smoked fish with chard.
They are working with a big food group, Sodexo Live!, that is running the restaurants and has made it a key objective to reduce the carbon footprint of its menu and use less animal protein.
It claims that a third of the protein across its 500 dishes will come from vegetables, and one of its signature dishes will be a dal of green lentils from the Paris region with skyr (a type of yoghurt), coriander and corn oil.
French people on average consume 113 kilos of meat annually — more than most European countries and almost double the global average — according to Our World in Data.
But with the country committed to cutting its meat consumption for environmental reasons, the Olympics could mark a turning point, said food historian Loic Bienassis.
“Historically, there are no famous French dishes that don’t include meat. To say ‘Let’s do some French cuisine but cut out the meat’ is a major turnaround,” he said.
– ‘Can’t impose on everyone’ –
There will still be plenty of meat in the Olympic Village, of course.
The last of the three top French chefs is Amandine Chaignot, who has chosen guinea fowl with crayfish as her signature meal.
“Clearly, when we think of traditional French cuisine, we think more of ‘steak au poivre’ than quinoa risotto,” she joked.
But vegetables alone cannot meet all the needs of the world’s top sportspeople, said Helene Defrance, a medal-winning sailor and nutritionist who is on the athletes’ commission for 2024.
“Vegetarianism is a big trend… but it’s not something that we can impose on everyone,” she told AFP.
Pulses can be hard to digest and not everyone converts plant proteins effectively, she said.
But as Mazzia points out, their food is more for celebrating after the competition than during the build-up.
“I’m interested in everything related to kilocalories and the like, but that’s not what I’m here for,” he said.
“The important thing during the Games is to stop and take a moment to enjoy something totally different. I hope the athletes come to celebrate their medal victories with me.”