Athletic stars from the West Indies will get a taste of home in the West Midlands when they arrive at their 2012 training camp in Edgbaston, writes Food Critic Richard McComb.
They may have been born in Jamaica but the island’s sporting heroes will be fuelled in Birmingham when they prepare for the race of their lives.
Track and field stars including sprint ace Usain Bolt will get a taste of the tropics when they arrive at their Olympic training camp at the University of Birmingham this weekend.
Breakfast, for example, could not be further from a traditional “full English” and will feature corn meal porridge, braised liver, ackee and saltfish, boiled yellow yams and fried bammies.
Authentically Caribbean they may be, but the exotic dishes will be cooked by team of home-grown Brummie chefs. Breakfast, lunch and dinner will have a West Indies flavour with a West Midlands spin.
The Jamaican team will be based at the university’s conference park in Edgbaston from July 15 until July 26, when they depart for opening ceremony in London. They will use the university’s sports facilities, including the track and the gym, for their technical fine tuning and fitness work and they will be in the hands of the campus’s chefs when it comes to their dietary requirements.
Jamaican team chef Karl Thomas, who has drawn up comprehensive menus for the 12-day stay, is flying in to oversee the catering operation but the day-to-day sourcing of ingredients, the preparation of food and the cooking will be managed by university sous chef Wayne Willis.
Thomas, an executive chef and lecturer at Jamaica’s School of Hospitality at University of Technology, will arrive in Birmingham just before the squad for a final run through with Willis and his brigade.
When I meet Willis a few days before the squad’s arrival, he is primed and ready to spring into action. For now, the leafy conference park’s glassed dining room is deserted; the tables, which are draped in linen, stand empty; and all is quiet in the kitchen. But the area will soon play a crucial role in satisfying the nutritional demands of some of the world’s leading athletes.
Willis, 31, who was born and bred in Moseley and now lives in Harborne says: “It is very exciting. The whole team are really pumped up. It is not every day you can say you are cooking for an Olympic team, let alone the Jamaican team.”
About 50 athletes are expected at the residential camp and Willis says he was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of the menu. Forget preconceptions you might have about elite sportsmen and women grazing on celery, pasta and bland poached chicken.
Jamaica’s athletes will be tucking into robust main courses like braised oxtail with butter beans, stew peas with pigs tail and beef, curried mutton and pan-seared fish with a firey Scotch bonnet beurre blanc.
There will be healthy fruit platters, but Willis has also been told to prepare to make sweet desserts like passionfruit cheesecake, apple strudle, chocolate cake and fruit cake. Jamaican athletes, it would seem, have a sweet tooth.
“I was quite surprised by some of the items on the menu because I thought it would all be about fruit platters and yoghurt and muesli,” says the chef.
Birmingham, of course, has a significant Jamaican heritage population but Willis says it was still a challenge to get reliable sources of good quality Caribbean produce and speciality spices in the sort of numbers he requires. UK-based Caribbean food and drink supplier Grace Food was able to step in and help.
There have been adaptations to some recipes, so goats head has been substituted with diced shoulder for one dish.
Willis is aware of the responsibility he and his brigade will shoulder in catering for a national team known for its love of home cooking. And he is equally aware of the need for stringent hygiene control. The last thing he wants to be known for is giving Usain Bolt a dodgy stomach.
When I ask him about the risks posed by food poisoning, Willis is uncompromising: “It is unthinkable. We will ensure, as we always do on a daily basis, that that it not a factor.”
*Bammies, in case you didn’t know, are Jamaican cassava flatbread, sweetened with coconut milk. Far more interesting than toast.