Will we have enough food… chairs… napkins…? If you find it stressful planning a dinner party, spare a thought for Jan Matthews. She’s the head of catering, cleaning and waste for the London 2012 Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
An Olympian calling
For the past three years Jan has lived and breathed the Olympic Games. “I went for the interview and immediately felt the excitement in the offices,” says Jan, who lives in Worcester with her husband and 14-year-old son, both as passionate about cooking as she is. “I knew that if on 27 July I was watching the opening ceremony from my couch rather than being there, I would live to regret it. We had a family discussion about me taking the job and all it would entail, but I knew it was something I had to do.”
It’s hard to ignore the buzz in the shiny Canary Wharf offices, where the colossal planning for the Olympics has gone on into the wee hours – and then some. Beyond her immediate team of 45, she oversees a mind-boggling number of staff – 22,000 in total. At any given time she has to consider health and safety, food storage, security issues, waste and recycling. Says Jan, “We have a requirement that zero per cent rubbish goes direct to landfill – 70 per cent will either be recycled or composted.” And that’s alongside the overriding objective of providing great and affordable food that represents Britain at its best, and pleases every palate on the planet.
Perils of the job
Jan has become a circumspect taster – if a meal gets the thumbs-up from her colleagues, she doesn’t bother to try it; if it gets a bad reaction, she tastes to see what can be done. It’s a policy purposefully adopted. “Like everybody who loves food, I suppose, I’ve put weight on and taken it off,” she says. “But when I was at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver a couple of years ago, none of the women’s uniforms were big enough for me – so I had to wear a man’s. I was on my feet for 18 hours a day and after three days I felt really achy. I knew I had to do something about it.”
Jan started dieting and going to the gym. In eight months she lost eight stone and for the past year and a half has been scrupulous about not letting work get in the way of looking after herself.
Expecting the unexpected
Inevitably, she has to handle questions about the official (American) food sponsors having such presence at the British Olympics: McDonald’s (it will be the biggest outlet in the world), Cadbury and Coca-Cola. Jan answers with a list of positives including, “McDonald’s has stories it doesn’t tell. All the chicken that
is served will be British, the beef will be Irish or British, the milk organic, all the eggs free-range
and the fish Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified.”
There are also provisions for halal and kosher food, vegetarian and gluten-free – plus it’s Ramadan during the Games, so fasting packs will be available for athletes. Then there are unexpected considerations. “You also have to think about anti-doping,” Jan explains. “So, for example, you can’t put poppy seeds on bread because it can give a positive reading for opiates.
Britain – on the menu
Jan – who’s a big foodie and shops at local farmers’ markets when she gets home at the weekend – enjoys talking about the small food producers and manufacturers in the Olympic chain of supply.
“There will be lamb from Wales, charcuterie from Perthshire, seafood from Devon, black pudding from Bury, Cornish clotted cream teas,” she says. “And of the 205 nations coming to the Games, 195 of them are represented in the five London boroughs that the Olympics will be held in.
With the clock ticking, the tension is mounting. As Jan says, you can only do your homework
for so long, then it’s time to put it to the test. And if the hundreds of hours and piles of lists translate into the food vision of the century, it’s going to be some party.
If you want to eat like an Olympian try these fantastic healthy recipes: