From Pool To Table

 

One of the hottest Longhorns to have won an Olympic gold medal isn’t just a superb athlete. Garrett Weber-Gale is a budding chef, too. After working in the world’s top restaurants, he wants to share the gastronomic techniques and healthy food lessons he’s learned with fellow athletes—and the rest of us.

All eyes in the arena are on Olympic gold-medal swimmer Garrett Weber-Gale as his knife slices steadily through the bright pink flesh of a grapefruit.

This is not a swimming stadium, but a much smaller kitchen arena at the Whole Foods Culinary Center in Austin. Weber-Gale is teaching a healthy cooking class to a largely young female crowd—just the audience you might expect for a handsome 26-year-old former Olympian.

Caramelizing a walnut, cutting a carrot, infusing a broth, making a roux—none of these techniques come to mind when considering a professional athlete. But Weber-Gale is not just an athlete; he is also a health-food advocate eager to share what he learned from staging (working as a stagiaire, the French term for chef’s apprentice) at some of the world’s best restaurants.

What started out as a medical necessity for Weber-Gale, BS ’08, Life Member, has turned into a full-throttle pursuit. In 2005, as a member of the UT swim team, he was diagnosed with high blood pressure. He had two choices: control the condition through diet or take medication, which wasn’t a realistic option. (As a competitive swimmer, he is drug-tested by three doping organizations; he doesn’t even like to take Claritin.)

Weber-Gale, who missed making the Olympic team in 2004 by one place, began navigating the kitchen. His parents hired a private chef to give him cooking lessons. After a few mishaps—ask him about the charred honey chicken—Weber-Gale fell in love with cooking.

“The more I cooked, the more I loved it,” he says. “And the more I learned, the more I wanted to learn.”

Although Weber-Gale started cooking because of his physical health, he quickly recognized its therapeutic benefits as well.

“I realized that cooking is pretty much instant gratification. It’s the total opposite of what swimming is,” he says. “We work super hard now so that this summer we have an opportunity to go ‘best time’ and make the Olympic team.”

With his eye on a gold medal in his second Olympic Games this summer in London*, Weber-Gale spends hours in the pool and weight room each day, and weeks traveling the world for meets. He takes training very seriously and has never missed a morning practice. “Every day you miss is a day you never get back,” he says, a mantra ingrained in him by coaches.

His first Olympics were the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, where he took home two gold medals for the 4×100 freestyle relay and the 4×100 medley relay.

But Beijing had something else in store for Weber-Gale—a serendipitous meeting with Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud in the Today Show’s green room. Weber-Gale had just finished an interview with the U.S. swim team. Boulud, the culinary genius behind New York’s highly praised restaurant, Daniel, was waiting to perform a cooking demonstration on air.

That initial meeting has evolved into a close mentor-protégé relationship. “Basically, Daniel inspired me to realize that I needed to learn from the best chefs in the best places,” Weber-Gale says. “Just like with swimming, I think you need to learn from the best and work out with the best.”

Weber-Gale approached his love of cooking with an athlete’s competitive mindset. “If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it the best I can, ” he says, fresh from a three-and-a-half-hour swim practice and sporting a crisp white polo shirt rather than the traditional chef ’s jacket.

After the 2009 World Swimming Championships in Rome, Weber-Gale, with the help of some friends from his hometown in Wisconsin, arranged to stage at Castello delle Regine, a thousand-acre estate in Umbria, Italy. The estate has a winery, olive orchards, cattle, and a restaurant, where Weber-Gale spent a month.

Castello delle Regine was just the first of several apprenticeships in some of the world’s most prestigious kitchens. Later in 2009 it was New York City’s Daniel; in 2010 it was France’s Michelin-starred La Maison Troisgros. Then, in 2011, it was Copen- hagen’s Noma—the world’s top-rated restaurant.

Even though he has worked in several highly sought-after kitchens, Weber-Gale knows he has much to learn. “I’m in second or third grade in the big scheme of cooking,” he says. “But we constantly evolve and constantly get better.”

And Weber-Gale very much believes he can still be better at swimming, which is why he hasn’t yet retired. In addition to his two Olympic gold medals, Weber-Gale is the first American to swim the 100-meter freestyle in under 48 seconds, which he did twice in 2008. Last year Weber-Gale came close to swimming the 100-meter freestyle again in under 48 seconds with a time of 48.1 seconds. His big goal for this year is to swim the event in under 48 seconds again.

Before Weber-Gale went to France in 2010 to apprentice at La Maison Troisgros, he was feeling low and thinking of retiring. He asked chef Michel Troisgros, “‘Do you ever get down?”

Troisgros replied, “Yes, but it’s my obligation. I have this talent,’” Weber-Gale remembers.

Had Weber-Gale retired in 2010, he would have been relatively young to do so, especially since swimmers are retiring later and later. At 27, Michael Phelps is the same age as Weber-Gale. On the U.S. men’s team, Jason Lezak was the oldest man at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 (he was 32). On the women’s side that same year, 41-year-old Dara Torres became the oldest swimming silver medalist in Olympic history.

Later this summer, Weber-Gale plans to stage at El Cellar de Can Roca in Spain, ranked second in the world.

“Every time he goes to a country, I make sure he meets the best chefs in that country,” Boulud says. So far, no chef has ever outdone his world’s- best meal in Denmark. “The best meal of my life was at Noma, no question about it,” Weber-Gale says. He had a 6 p.m. reservation, ate by himself, and didn’t leave until midnight. He still waxes poetic, remembering it. “The ingredients are all from Scandinavia,” he says.

“They bring this huge rock. On this rock is a langostino tail, dabs of herb puree, and a seaweed dusting. The concept is that the big rock is in the water where the langostino lives. The herbs grow on the beach near where the langostino lives, and the seaweed is from the [aquatic] environment of the langostino. It paints this picture for you.” But for Weber-Gale, cooking isn’t just about mind-blowing meals—as a professional athlete, for him food is fuel. He realizes that much of what these chefs with whom he apprentices are cooking is not healthy and is very difficult to make. But the chefs use classic techniques, which Weber-Gale in turn tweaks to make dishes that are healthier. For example, he will take the concept of infusing cream with flavor and apply it to rice milk rather than cream.

Using such techniques, Weber-Gale has developed a collection of his own recipes and has taught cooking classes at Central Market, Lake Austin Spa, and Whole Foods.

In 2008, Weber-Gale co-founded Athletic- Foodie, a website to help people realize they can have a better life through nutrition. He hopes to show that food that is good for you can taste good, too. Weber-Gale runs the site with his parents and his sister. His contributing writers include nutritionists, a physical therapist, and a chiropractor. It’s still in a formative stage, he says. The goal is to generate revenue through outreach efforts like a cookbook, cooking classes, and DVDs.

“One of the things I want to help people do is realize that there is such an importance of knowing where your food comes from and why you need to eat it and what you’re getting from it,” Weber-Gale says. “That is what I’ve learned from going to these places.”

On Weber-Gale’s first day at La Maison Troisgros, he walked through the lobby with Chef Troisgros, and the two were stopped by a couple who had just finished their meal.

“The woman looks at Michel and says, ‘That was the most incredible pea soup I have ever had in my life,’” Weber-Gale says. “And Michel looks at her and says, ‘Well, of course. The peas are straight from the garden.’”

Although Weber-Gale considers the celebrated Boulud to be his mentor, the exchange of knowledge goes both ways.

“I’m so impressed,” Boulud says. “We are all very good at what we do, but to be a world champion in swimming, it requires so much discipline and concentration in not only training, but in lifestyle.”

Case in point: Weber-Gale goes to bed every night at 9 p.m., rarely drinks alcohol, doesn’t go out often, and goes to great lengths to give his body the fuel and nutrients it needs.

Even so, he’s only human. “If I want barbecue, I’m going to get barbecue,” he says. “But I don’t do that often.”

Boulud’s daughter is a student at Tufts University, with its well-known nutrition school. Boulud hopes Weber-Gale will show people how nutrition can taste good.

“Nobody has spent enough time giving [health food] enough taste and flavor,” he says. The focus has always been on the carbohydrates or nutritional profile. So Boulud thinks Weber-Gale’s mission to bring gastronomy to the nutritional world of athletes is a noble one.

Weber-Gale’s enthusiasm to share his knowledge of healthy eating never wavers. Several times a year he will have the freshmen on the UT swim team over for a nutritious, home-cooked meal. He has taken fellow swimmers to the grocery store to show them how to shop better. And he teaches by example: teammates see him microwaving his special meals after a practice or a meet and start asking questions, which Weber-Gale is more than happy to answer.

That mission is one he’ll continue to pursue even after his retirement from swimming. He’s set on staying in the food world. “But I don’t want to be a chef,” he says. “Being a chef, you don’t really have the lifestyle I want. Eventually I want to have a wife and kids and come home to them every night.”

In addition to his focused pursuit to qualify for the Summer Olympics, Weber-Gale is also working on a recipe-infused memoir.

“The book tells of my battle with high blood pressure, going to Italy and Copenhagen, my relationship with Daniel, and how these chefs have really affected me and molded me into who I am today,” he says. “The recipes will use techniques that I’ve learned at these restaurants with healthy twists to show the difference a better diet can make. I’m living proof. I battled a health condition, and I still do.”

Back to that “arena” at Whole Foods. Weber-Gale still gets nervous before teaching a cooking class. Part of it is that competitive mindset in which a person only does something if he can be the best at it. “I don’t train for it like I do for swimming, which I train for every day,” Weber- Gale says.

Although he knows much more about nutrition and cooking than the average person, the other part is simply modesty. It’s endearing in an Olympic champion.

Before beginning his cooking performance, Weber-Gale offers the audience a disclaimer: “I’m not a professionally trained chef. This isn’t my day or night job, really,” he says. “I’m a professional swimmer.”

Although this professional swimmer is a true and accomplished foodie, at this moment food is simply fuel—propelling him toward the gold.

Get two Weber-Gale recipes here.

Photos by Matt Rainwaters

 

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