What does feeding 11 000 athletes three meals a day teach a chef about herself, catering and food logistics?

In August this year, Michelle Lopes, Operations Director at ChefMLK, was a member of the catering team at the Summer Universiade in Taiwan. The Universiade is an international sporting and cultural event for university students that is staged every two years in a different city. It is considered second only to the Olympic Games.

In Linkow, in northern Taiwan, the organising committee had created a village for the athletes, complete with apartments, a dining hall, clinic and convenience store. It was here that Michelle spent five of the most remarkable weeks of her life.

It came about through Peter Wright from Australia who was the event’s organising chef and GHG director. “He contacted us with an invitation to run one of the departments,” says Michelle. “I jumped at the opportunity and so ended up running the cold kitchen front of house.”

Eleven thousand athletes needed three meals a day. As if the sheer number was not enough, the athletes required nutrition-based food and, because of the training and competition schedule, meals had to be served almost round the clock.

“Nutrition was the name of the catering game,” says Michelle. “Each dish and item on the buffet had to have a card that stipulated its nutritional value, allergens, and so on. We couldn’t just add any kind of mayonnaise to a coleslaw without thinking about the overall nutritional value of the dish. Although taste was important, nutrition was the top priority.”

Adding to the complexity was the fact that different sports had different requirements. The team that planned the meals made provision for an incredibly wide choice of foods and dishes to give the athletes as many options as possible.

Food safety was unprecedented. “I learned so much about nutrition and allergens,” says Michelle. “We take for granted how easy it is to make a meal. Your mindset changes when the challenge is not only to come up with a dressing that tastes amazing, but one that also fits into everyone’s dietary requirements. This heightened awareness has become habit. Even when I’m cooking at home, where nobody is allergic, I sanitise my hands whenever I’ve touched any kind of allergin.”

Hygiene practices in the Universiade kitchens were the strictest Michelle has ever experienced. There was a team that took food samples continuously, and another that watched how the chefs worked and cleaned. “You cannot take a chance on 11 000 athletes getting sick!”

The logistics of an almost-24-hour-a-day kitchen were another significant learning curve. Breakfast was served between 05:00 and 11:00; lunch between 11:00 and 17:00; dinner between 17:00 and midnight; and supper between midnight and 01:00.

As head chef of her section, the buck stopped with Michelle. In order to make sure that each serving was correct, she spent at least 14-18 hours a day in the kitchen. The heat and humidity was insane, and she walked between 30 000 and 32 000 steps a day. The evening of the opening ceremony was a record breaker – Michelle clocked 50 559 steps. “I’ll never forget that number!”

The events team consisted of chefs from Chile, Brazil, New Zealand and Australia. “The majority of my brigade didn’t speak English,” she says. Supplier relations were also completely different to what the chefs are used to in South Africa, and differences in quality presented unexpected challenges. “But we made it work.”

Will she do it again? “Definitely! In my second week, I would have easily hoped on a plane back to SA. I had blisters on my feet from standing for hours and I thought I would never cope. But the support from the people around me was one of the best parts of this experience. We helped each other through the tough times, and because of that I could push myself emotionally, mentally and physically to new levels.”

The pushing of boundaries extended to bizarre experiences, such as tasting local delicacies like rooster testicle stew on the rare off day.

Now that she’s back home, Michelle is keen for a similar experience. “The Universiade was the hardest thing I have ever had to do, but it was one of the highlights of my career. Every day was completely different and I was constantly catching curveballs. As a result, a function for 100 people no longer stresses me. I just tell the team we got this.”