By Robin Chotzinoff
Photography by Marc Brown
The Today Show was filming in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics and plenty of high-profile guests were on hand—among them, swimmer Garrett Weber-Gale who had not only just won a gold medal as part of an American relay team, but had broken the American record for the 100-meter freestyle. Renowned chef Daniel Boulud, who had just opened a restaurant in Beijing, was also there.
Weber-Gale couldn’t believe his luck—Boulud, a chef he idolized, had witnessed the greatest race of his life and was now within arm’s reach. He was starstruck.
“I went over immediately and introduced myself,” says Weber-Gale. “I said, ‘Can you help me? I really want to stage [apprentice] in France.’ I ended up doing three days at restaurant Daniel!”
Swimming has been Weber-Gale’s vocation since he was very young, but shadowing chefs he admires is more than a hobby. In August, he spent five weeks in rural France apprenticing at Le Maison Troisgros—an opportunity also arranged by Boulud.
“He wanted me to go to the area where he himself learned to cook,” Weber-Gale says. His anticipation and glee were evident in the blog posts Weber-Gale published with The Huffington Post. “Chef Adam Siegel told me that staging in Italy is like joining the peace corps, but staging in France is like enlisting in the military.”
In his youth, Weber-Gale spent so much time in the pool that he never learned so much as how to fry an egg. “Everything would be done for me,” he recalls. “That was nice, but when I got out of college, I had to learn to cook for myself. It was a BIG problem. I moved out of the dorm and was diagnosed with high blood pressure—which is much more common among elite athletes than you would think.”
The diagnosis provided motivation. Although he ended up having to take a small amount of medication, cooking lessons arranged by his parents became an addiction. Austin’s Tim Carter, a private chef, taught him to make everything from home-made pasta to pot stickers to stocks. Before long, Weber-Gale was bringing his own food on the road, frozen into serving-size containers. His teammates might be fellow Olympians following a scrupulously designed diet, he says, but the food he serves himself is “healthier and better.”
At home, his meals are “mostly plant-based, maybe bison twice a week, some cheese but no milk, homemade veggie burgers, bean dishes, maybe a vegetarian lasagna. Low-sodium was a huge frustration. So,” he says, a bit shyly, “I came up with Garrett’s Kickin’ Spices.”
In fact, his small townhouse kitchen has a faint smell of cardamom—and could that be sage? As Garrett opens jars of his spice mixes, the intensity grows.
“Try this one on fruit… or pork! It’s incredible. This other one’s great on brown rice.”
Future plans include marketing Kickin’ Spices online, but for now Weber-Gale enjoys cooking for himself during his brief periods off the road, keeping his Henckels knives sharp, watching the occasional food show and trying out new recipes on his friends. Clearly, he belongs in the kitchen. Of course, it could be any kitchen, anywhere in the world. “Tokyo,” he says immediately. “I met a woman on Twitter who writes an insane food blog. She messaged me that she knew all the best chefs in Tokyo. Next year, I’m going.”