French gastronomy faces logistical Olympics challenge

France's vaunted gastronomy will be put to the ultimate test when organisers of the 2024 Paris Olympics have to feed 15,000 athletes.

French gastronomy faces logistical Olympics challenge
French Olympic medalist and dieticien Hélene Defrance is consulting on catering for the 2024 Olympic Games. (Photo by PATRICK KOVARIK / AFP)

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) inscribed the “gastronomic meal of the French” on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010.

“The gastronomic meal emphasises togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the balance between human beings and the products of nature,” UNESCO said. “The gastronomic meal should respect a fixed structure, commencing with an aperitif (drinks before the meal) and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert.”

Realistically, the restaurants run by French catering giants Sodexo might not offer such a complete experience – and doubtless few athletes in the prime of their lives would take on such a culinary bonanza given they will be in Paris on tight schedules focused more on competing than indulging themselves.

Around 40,000 meals a day will be served during the Paris Olympics, using produce largely sourced in France.

Sodexo, through its subsidiary Sodexo Live!, already has experience of catering high-profile sporting events such as the Super Bowl, tennis’s French Open and the Tour de France cycling race.

But it will have its work cut out feeding participants at the Olympie Games July and August, 2024, and then the Paralympics that follow in August and September.

Some 6,000 people will be employed to help in the restaurants, Sodexo Live! managing director Nathalie Bellon-Szabo said on Tuesday.

In addition to the Olympic Village, Sodexo will also cater for 14 other Olympic sites and eight Paralympic venues throughout France.

Games organisers have made no secret of what they will be serving up: more vegetables than usual with an emphasis on locally-grown products.

Of the estimated 13 million meals that will be served during the Olympics and Paralympics, from a snack right through to a dish cooked by a top chef, the goal is to have produce that is 80% French.

It is a “huge logistical challenge,” said Philipp Wuerz, project manager for catering, cleaning and waste on the Paris 2024 organising committee.

Avoiding queues, providing food that is healthy, varied and of good quality, with 25% of produce sourced “from within 250km” of each site, is challenging. “We’re used to managing this type of event, but not over such a long period of time,” said Stephane Chicheri, chief executive of Sodexo Live!.

There will be a necessity to remain “adaptable” over potential supply chain issues and price hikes for certain produce, Maxime Jacob, the organising committee’s catering project manager, told AFP.

The athletes can choose from 500 recipes, which are currently undergoing fine-tuning before menus are signed off by the end of this year.

It is impossible, however, to be 100% local, Wuerz said. “The athletes will eat around three million bananas and they don’t grow in the Paris region!”

Bananas, exotic fruits and rice will nevertheless be “organic or fair-trade certified,” Wuerz said.

All meat and dairy products will be 100% French, while seafood will be from sustainable fishing.

The recipes have been drawn up after consulting athletes and nutritional experts, including Helene Defrance, a dietician who won a sailing bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

“There are no set menus” because organisers have to adapt to the food habits of every athlete, Defrance said, be it light meals or carbo-loading.

During their stay at the village in the Seine-Saint-Denis region north of Paris, athletes will also be treated to haute cuisine.

A trio of French chefs will have their own space next to the main Olympic food hall.

Amandine Chaignot will serve up guinea fowl with langoustines or gnocchi in chicken sauce. Akrame Benallal has come up with a crispy quinoa muesli, while you can expect Alexandre Mazzia to produce a herb-packed chickpea pommade.

The main food hall will have 3,600 seats and offer up dishes that are not just French-themed but also from around the world, as well as halal food for Muslim athletes, Jacob said.

In a bid to help make the Games more sustainable, water fountains will be installed to reduce single-use plastics, while the kitchen equipment and cutlery will all be reused after the Paralympics brings an end to a colossal logistic challenge.

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Wanted: Chefs, cleaners and bus drivers for Paris Olympics

The organisers of the Paris Olympics are in a race to fill 16,000 job vacancies ranging from chefs and cleaners to bus drivers and technicians.

Wanted: Chefs, cleaners and bus drivers for Paris Olympics

A recruitment fair is being held next week at the Olympic athletes’ village in Saint-Denis in a quest to find suitable candidates with the 2024 Games only 10 months away.

With employers in some sectors struggling to recruit since the Covid pandemic, this Olympian-size job drive will be “a challenge for both private security and catering”, said Cecile Martin from the French government’s department of labour.

Non-EU workers will need a residency permit in place in order to work – employers will not sponsor visas for overseas workers – and there has been additional scrutiny on Olympic projects after it was found that some staff working on Games construction projects were undocumented. 

All of this means that next week employers will have to convince potential candidates that the Olympic rings on their CVs represents a plus.

“It’s a rich experience which will be valued by future employers,” promised Tony Estanguet, head of the Paris 2024 organising committee.

“It’s a great challenge, like the Games,” he told AFP.

“And all the better if the dynamic of the Olympic Games enables sectors in difficulty to find employees.”

The company awarded the contract to keep the athletes fed and watered at the Olympic Village and in 14 competition venues is seeking to recruit 6,000 staff.

The French RATP transport company needs bus drivers, while the clock is ticking for security firms to find the 17,000 to 22,000 people required to help the Games run smoothly.

Several thousand more will be required to help secure the fan zones.

According to Pole Emploi, France’s national employment centre, by the end of last month 6,200 people had been hired in this sector with a further 8,000 on training courses.

The Paris organising committee also needs staff in various areas. Its team numbers 1,700 now, with over 4,000 required by the time of the Games.

How many actual new jobs of the 18,000 identified will be created by next year’s Olympics is uncertain.

“This information will be available at the end of the Games,” said Christophe Lepetit from the Centre for Law and Economics of Sport (CDES).