Campbell River chef Jade Berg thought when he answered a call from the Canadian Luge Team to be their chef, that it would just be another job.
However, it turned out to be a lot more than that.
“I looked at the schedule and thought … I’ve never been to Europe. It’d be cool to go and check out the markets over there. So yeah, I jumped on board,” Berg said. “It was just kind of a gig at first … This was the first gig that I was sad to leave.”
Berg is a private chef who typically does private cooking, classes and events. His specialty is in foraged and other wild-sourced foods.
However, Berg’s job with the luge team was to change the way they looked at nutrition.
At an elite level, what an athlete eats is almost as important as how they train. The food they’re putting in their bodies is the fuel needed to perform at a high level.
That’s where Berg comes in.
His role was to ensure that the food these athletes were consuming was actually beneficial to them. The best way to do that is through consistency.
“It’s much more physical than I would have thought they’re burning around 400 calories to 540, 550 calories per hour-long sliding session,” he said.
“In these foreign countries where the food is maybe not familiar … So a lot of the times these athletes don’t have the time to get the proper nutrition … A lot of these athletes drop weight, which in any other sport would be good.
“But for this like they need to keep their weight levels to a certain point. Weight is how they gain speed down the hill.
“Losing weight while on tour was a really big detriment to the organization prior to me coming on board.”
He said that once per week he’d host the whole team for a family-style meal with food he’d bought specifically for the occasion. That gave the team a different dynamic as well, instead of spending off-days resting in their hotel rooms, they actually got to socialize and even strategize about upcoming competitions.
“We really tried to make it fun as well. If eating isn’t fun and food isn’t tasty it makes it a lot harder to force yourself to eat,” he said.
“Once a week we would do a nice plated dinner and I would get a chance to … flex my culinary muscle a little bit … they’d have a chance to experience a whole different side of food that they’ve ever had on the road.
“The (team’s) relationship with food has changed a lot,” he said. “Mealtime was something that would look forward to. It wasn’t something like ‘oh gosh, we’re gonna go down to the buffet and wonder what kind of meat they’re gonna be serving today.’”
This opportunity was a pilot project, and Berg said that other teams have expressed interest in doing something similar.
Athletic organizations operate on a limited budget, and Berg said that by bringing on a team chef, they’re able save money on food costs.
“They’re operating on these shoestring budgets,” he said.
“Food is so expensive… That was a huge cost in the past; even eating out. We’re talking about ways to connect with Canadian suppliers or food producers and how can we get these athletes some food during the off season.
“To be able to try and take a little bit of weight off their shoulders will be good.”
Though it was just a pilot project, Berg said it was successful enough for the athletes to have already seen a difference.
Berg was with the team for three stops on the world cup circuit, which he said gave them a chance to compare what it was like with him to what it was like without him.
“They can do the first three stops of the World Cup tour with a chef and then the last two without and it gives them a little bit of contrast,” he said. “I’m already getting messages. The one athlete messaged me last night (saying) that ‘we really miss you.’ I said, ‘oh, yeah. How’s the food?’ They’re we’re unsure. The meat that they’re serving is questionable.”
There are already plans to bring him on next year for the entire season. Though Berg himself won’t be able to feed multiple teams at once, he hopes the idea spreads and other Canadian chefs and food producers get hooked up with athletes.
Before this season, Berg was as big of a luge fan as anybody else.
Mainly he cheered for the Canadian team during the Olympics, but other years he didn’t think much of the sport.
Now, though, he’s a fan. Berg has even gotten his family involved.
Another bonus for Berg was the ability to shop and cook in foreign markets. Picture an Anthony Bourdain-esque venture through the food markets of Riga, Latvia and it’ll be pretty close.
“I went into Riga, the capital of Latvia one day to go walk through the Old Market there. The Central Markets in Riga are just phenomenal,” he said. “We look at food in very different ways here in North America.
“Everything is packaged and individual muscle cuts are grouped and wrapped up. There there’s like a whole pig’s head that’s sawed in half. The salmon are all hanging and there’s ducks dry-aging. It was really a cool experience.”
Normally, Berg’s gigs are one-offs. He goes and cooks for a client, has a good time and then goes home.
This time, he really feels like he was part of the team.
“They went out of their way to go buy me a nice little token of their appreciation and they all signed a bib,” he said.
“We were at the airport all hugging each other and leaving. We all had tears where… yeah, I’ve never had that with any client I’ve cooked for.”