If Eddie Jones is responsible for making sure England take the field for their first Six Nations fixture against Ireland with fire in their belly, a great deal of thought, science and dedication from a hidden team of experts goes into deciding what else ends up in there.
One person who knows how crucial the role can be is Omar Meziane, the expert with the pan-sporting CV who works closely with the three Harlequins players in the squad. Having taken his first steps in sport as a matchday chef for Wasps and Wycombe Wanderers at Adams Park, Meziane went on to cook for England’s cricket team on their 2013-14 Ashes tour of Australia, the England football team at last year’s World Cup and the British rowing team at the Rio Olympics. He started his current job at Harlequins within hours of returning from the 2017 Under-20 football World Cup in South Korea. “I’m convinced now we have the best food in the Premiership,” the club’s chief nutritionist, David Dunne, said last year. “I’m sure every nutritionist will vouch that a good chef goes a long way.”
This one has done so in the most literal sense, serving sportspeople from Russia to Rio and from Sydney to Seoul. “The requirements across sports are quite different,” Meziane says. “I’m incredibly fortunate that on a daily basis I work with some of the world’s greatest performance nutritionists, who really hone the science. They will sit with individual players and work out exactly what weight they need to be, what body fat percentage they’re looking for, what they need to eat to run around for 80 minutes. It’s my job to take that science and turn it into really good, tasty, recognisable food.”Q&A
What food powers players through a Six Nations matchday?
The focus on food is part of a modern sporting culture in which, in Meziane’s words, “it’s all about ensuring that you’ve ticked every single box”.
He talks glowingly about one of Harlequins’ current internationals, for whom he caters at work and at home: “He goes to every length to ensure he is in the absolute best condition he can be. He eats exactly what I turn up at his house every night with, no more and no less. He’s eating right, sleeping right, he gets the best rehab when he needs it, the best training. And I don’t think it’s an isolated case.”
With cricketers playing low-intensity sport for several days at a time while rowers need to be in peak condition for just a few minutes of intense effort, the amount of fuel sportspeople require varies enormously. “Rowers are eating sometimes 7,000 calories a day, for the heavy men. That’s three times more than average. It’s insane,” Meziane says. “I can’t explain how hard the rowers train, and how much they eat. With rugby and football it’s much lighter – a lot of pasta, a lot of chicken on matchdays, and with both sports they’ll load up with carbs and protein the night before a match. With cricketers it’s all slow-release carbohydrates and it’ll be a lot of a little – good quality protein, lots of grains, lots of seeds.”
Early this year Meziane and his long-time friend, the England rugby forward James Haskell, published a recipe book, Cooking for Fitness, focused on sport-specific meals and he is convinced the example set by athletes “can have much more impact on society than another Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall campaign”. But despite his success as a cook, not everything he produces is popular.
“I cannot tell you how many times my food’s been rejected,” he says. “There was one post-match meal with England, I’d produced what I thought was an incredible spread of food but one of our goalkeepers turned around in the middle of the dining room and shouted at me: ‘Oi, chef, we’re not having this healthy stuff after a game.’ When you work in sport you’ve got to have a very thick skin. The athletes I work with, they train so incredibly hard. When they don’t like something, you get it in the neck. You’ve got to take the criticism and move on.”