Competing at the Culinary Olympics is all in the Planning

• Editor’s note: This article was originally published in September 2015 and was updated in October 2019 for accuracy and comprehensiveness. •

Cooking for the U.S. staff, volunteers and athletes at the Olympic Games all comes down to one important thing—preparation.

Scouting Olympic locations and planning for U.S. foodservice at the games starts a few years in advance. Menus must be planned, equipment shipped and food items that are not easily obtained in foreign countries must be identified and packed.

For Jacqueline Hamilton, CEC, AAC, senior executive chef for the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), based in Colorado Springs, Colo., cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, was just another day on the job — a job she has been doing for more than 30 years.

Jacqueline Hamilton, CEC, AAC, executive chef, U.S. Olympic Committee

First years
In 1988, Hamilton found out about a front of the house salad bar and hotline attendant job available at the USOC from a newspaper ad. She was attending Pikes Peak Community College, Colorado Springs, for an associate degree in culinary management and thought the job would be a great experience while she was in school. She applied for the position, and little did she know that 26 years later, she would still be there, thriving. “The interview was held in the dining room at the U.S. Olympic Complex with numerous staff members from various seniority levels sitting at different tables,” Hamilton recalls.  “It was intimidating to be interviewed by management, executive chef and line cooks, but it worked out and here I am.”

After she graduated, she was promoted to the back of the house as a cook and then to an catering coordinator, where she assisted in building an annual catering revenue of $300,000. However, Hamilton had plans to earn her Certified Executive Chef (CEC) designation and went back to the kitchen as a coordinating chef. While preparing for her CEC exams, she applied for the executive chef position that had opened up, and got the job. She has now held the position of executive chef with the USOC for 14 years.

Hamilton says that she “has had the privilege of traveling to six games” in the past 18 years. She has been on-site in Atlanta (1996), Athens (2004), Beijing (2008), Vancouver (2010), London (2012) and Sochi (2014) to assist with food production for the U.S. delegation, which includes support staff, coaches and volunteers, as well as providing food to the American athletes after they compete.  She has enjoyed traveling to the Olympic Games, but one place in particular has stayed with her. “Beijing was one of my favorites, thus far,” says Hamilton. “I enjoyed experiencing a culture with so many different varieties of food that I would not have a chance to eat elsewhere, such as scorpion on a stick, which definitely did not taste like chicken. “And the people were so gracious,” she notes. “Calling me ‘madam’ everywhere I went.”

 Planning for the games
As senior executive chef, Hamilton and her culinary staff at the USOC provide meal planning and preparation for the U.S. athletes when they are at the competition site and after they compete and need recovery foods, and the U.S. delegation. Typically, during the games, the host city provides living accommodations for the athletes, as well as food and amenities for the athletes while they are not competing.

“Of course, our athletes think of us as family and will usually find their way to our location for a home-cooked meal,” says Hamilton.

The USOC delegation first visits the Olympic Games’ site in advance to secure locations for the athletes and staff. The associate director of food and nutrition traveled to Sochi 18 months in advance to meet with food vendors and preview the location. The USOC culinary team stayed and cooked at Adler at the Admiral Hotel, Sochi.

Russian food vendors provided the USOC with order guides that were then translated into English and converted from the metric system. The number of staff and athletes going to Sochi must also be confirmed in advance, so that Hamilton can start the menu planning process. She would plan to serve a full American breakfast, a light lunch and dinner every day, from Jan. 24, when they arrived to set up, until after the Olympic Games, which ended Feb. 23. The food order must be placed six months in advance for delivery on-site.  The order for Sochi was placed in summer 2013 for delivery in January 2014.

During the site visits, an inventory was made of equipment that would be available on-site for the USOC culinary team. Once Hamilton had completed her menu planning, she began to figure out what additional equipment must be purchased and shipped to the site in advance.

“Cooking is pretty much the same no matter where you are,” she says. “You see what you have available and make a plan.”

Besides an eight-burner propane stove available at the hotel in Sochi, Hamilton had to source a lot of equipment, including a combi oven, rice cookers, blenders, induction burners, a slicer, mixers, china, flatware, freezers and refrigerators.

Even after all the planning and preparation, Hamilton and her crew still made daily runs to the store and, on occasion, the open market in Sochi for supplies, which gave them a chance to see the city.

Hamilton made an effort to incorporate traditional Russian foods, such as borscht into the daily menu. However, the menu mainly focused on American favorites, such as New York striploin with all the trimmings, and not-so-American foods, such as sushi and Mexican-themed dinners. Tortillas are not available in Russia, but she came prepared and made her own on-site.

Life at the Russian seaside was not all hard work for the USOC culinary team. They had good times over food, including homemade pizza night.  An outdoor wood-burning pizza oven happened to be on-site, and one of the USOC chefs made “terrific wood-grilled pizzas for everyone to enjoy,” Hamilton reminisced. The Russian hospitality was warm and welcoming. One morning, the owner of the hotel where they were staying brought three large live sturgeon into the hotel and put them in the water fountain in the lobby. He proclaimed that he liked his fish fresh and he was going to cook a special dinner for the USOC culinary team that night. All day they could watch their dinner swimming in the fountain waiting to be cooked and when they finally got to eat it, “it was delicious,” says Hamilton.

Hamilton counts herself fortunate to have this job, and to be able to see the U.S. athletes compete and cheer them on. “We basically bled red, white and blue,” she says.

If Hamilton wasn’t cooking for the USOC, what else would she do? “I really don’t know,” she says. “I love what I do, and working with the U.S. athletes is a true pleasure.”

By Jessica Ward
Photos are courtesy of Jacqueline Hamilton
This story was first published in spring of 2014 as a member feature on American Culinary Federation’s website.