With everything she needs packed tidily in her mobile kitchen, Russian-born Olga Belenko is always ready to feed EF Education First Drapac p/b Cannondale’s global roster of professional cyclists.
As their primary chef, Olga spends more than 120 days per year driving the curving, quaint roads of Europe, sometimes logging more than 6,000 kilometers of driving per race. Her daily life is one of exploring the nooks and crannies of other countries, seeking the best local ingredients from every stop, and leaning heavily on the six languages she speaks.
Olga recently took a few moments after the Critérium du Dauphiné race to tell us about her culinary journey, the importance of language, and creating healthy, regionally sourced menus while on the go.
How did you become a chef for a pro cycling team?
First, I learned to cook from my Russian grandma and mom. We cooked together all the time. Then, my husband Sean started cooking for the team, when it was Garmin, in 2009. We had a restaurant together and I would run the restaurant while Sean cooked for the riders at the races. We wanted to be together more, so we sold the restaurant and I joined him cooking for the team in 2010.
This is the first year I’m cooking for the team by myself and I enjoy it. I create the menus now and feel like I’m more engaged in the food. I’m not only doing my job, but have the responsibility to look for new recipes and new ingredients. I like that feeling.
You speak many languages. Which do you speak at home?
I have a son from my first marriage. He’s in Colorado. Then we have two daughters from Sean’s first marriage and they now live in Barcelona. When we’re all together at home, we speak a minimum of four languages between us all.
Spanish is the language Sean and I decided to speak with each other. Even though he’s American, he lives in Spain. It became difficult to talk to each other in English, because we realized we weren’t integrating into the local society. So, Spanish became the language of home.
Then, because we live in Catalonia, Catalan is taught in the schools and spoken everywhere here. Our kids were studying in Catalan and speaking it at home, so we were obligated to speak Catalan as well. I also taught our kids Russian, and Sean taught them English. And then we all speak French because we live along the French border.
How has learning and knowing different languages helped you in your role?
In the kitchen, language has to happen very fast. Our group is very international and I buy all the ingredients from local markets. With ingredients, I know them in six languages, so depending on what I need, I can speak about it.
Also, I love going to different countries and speaking their language. It helps connect me instantly to the people there and helps me at the races. Speaking Italian helps during Giro d’Italia, for example. And in the past three months alone, I’ve been to France, Italy, Switzerland, and Spain.
My French and Italian are at the level of my work. I can have conversations, but those two are still growing and developing.
Where do you source most of your ingredients for the meals and what’s your process?
Moving from place to place, the menu and ingredients change a lot. I like this part. It’s motivating. I like to go to the market and choose my menu in the moment, because some days we’re at the beach, some days the mountains, some days wherever.
Everything also depends on the time of year, the season, the temperature, and the weather. Is it raining? Is it cold? Is it hot? Another factor is the riders I have.
On average, a rider can eat up to 9,000 calories a day. What’s it like cooking for them?
We are a very international team. We have many riders from different countries so the menu all depends how they mix.
For example, the Latino guys don’t like spices. The Americans love Mexican food. Our Nordic guys like stew and potatoes, but not cold soup. Once, an Italian guy came to the table when I had made soup, and said, “I’m not sick. Soup is only for when you’re sick, no?” They all have different tastes.
When you’re in Italy, France, and Spain, what are your favorite local dishes to make?
In Italy, I want to cook with pasta, risotto, fish, mozzarella, caprese, everything you can find in the market. And in France, lots of salmon and eggplant. In Spain, it’s usually paella and gazpacho.
What’s your typical schedule during a race?
The schedule during a race is very strict. If a meeting time says 7:15AM, then it’s 7:15AM, not 7:20.
I wake up about five or six in the morning, make breakfast for the team, and clean up. Then we move the kitchen truck to the next hotel. From hotel to hotel, there are 150 kilometers in between, sometimes 200, sometimes 300.
Along the way, we find supermarkets for fresh fruit, vegetables, and other produce. We park the kitchen truck when we arrive, connect to electricity and water, then two hours before riders come back to hotel, we prepare dinner. We feed the riders, clean everything, and if I’m lucky, at 11 or maybe 12, going to bed.
Describe your kitchen truck. What’s inside?
I have two gas burners and an oven, a griddle, two big refrigerators, a convection/electrical oven, sinks, and a few small appliances like a juicer—all the things I really need. Making food for eight guys, it’s enough.
What do you do when you’re back at home in Catalonia, Spain?
When I’m not cooking, I love to go to the mountains with my dog. I love to do yoga.
My other passion is animals. I volunteer in dog refuges. In helping those organizations, I decided to study as a dog therapist and trainer. I just finished.
My husband Sean and I also have a small company we opened recently. We make healthy foods full of Vitamin C for kids, using rose hip fresh pulp and dried fruit. The business also helps the local farmers. There isn’t enough work for them, so the company has a social impact too.
What else do you love about food?
Food is like a time machine. The smells, the recipes, the flavor, the music. These things take you back in time, take you back to a moment where you’re with your mom, or someone else, and you remember the place, you remember the food, you remember the experience.
The riders were one time asking me to make a Russian dish. I made a whole Russian dinner, and oh my, during that time, I was mentally back at home with my grandma for two hours.
Have you ever thought about a cookbook?
There’s enough for me to do for now, but maybe in the future.
Follow Chef Olga’s travels at @olgafowler.