When Dr. Allen Lim left the lab to work with pro cyclists, he found a peloton weary of food. For years the sport’s elite athletes had been underperforming on bland fare and processed bars and gels. Science held few easy answers for nutrition in the real world, where hungry athletes must buy ingredients; make meals; and enjoy eating before, during, and after each workout, day after day.
So Lim set out to make eating delicious and practical. His journey began with his mom, took him inside the kitchens of the Tour de France, and delivered him to a dinner party where he met celebrated chef Biju Thomas.
What made you realize you needed a cookbook for athletes?
Allen: On my first night in Europe, I watched one of the athletes I was coaching pour a bowl of cereal for dinner, and I knew we all had to do better. I needed to teach the athletes simple, practical recipes. In some cases I need to teach them how to shop for food, how to chop vegetables, or how to literally fry an egg.
How did you get started?
I wasn’t doing much better with my own diet. I’d spent most of the previous decade eating my meals over the kitchen sink, in front of my computer, or while walking across campus — behavior that was perfectly normal for a “starving” graduate student. So I called my mom. Pen and paper in hand, I bombarded her with questions. What was that thing wrapped in bamboo leaves that we used to eat when I was a kid? What ingredients do I need for that noodle dish? How did you make that amazing curry? And what were those rice cake desserts we use to pick up at the bakery in China Town?
Euro pros eating Chinese at a race? How’d that go over?
I put a rice cooker in the team bus one day to replace baguettes with fresh rice after races. For many soigneurs, cooks, and especially the team bus driver, this was blasphemy. I was subjected to a load of racial slurs for my disruptive ways, but it was well worth it. The riders appreciated and thrived on the change. I started asking them as many questions as they asked me and we began teaching each other.
I later spent an entire season scouring obscure Asian markets in Europe for the best rice cookers available on the continent, securing a few of them for the team I was working with, and converting the riders to a predominantly rice-based diet. My triumph was short-lived. The guys returned to the bus following their first race of the next season only to learn that my precious equipment had deliberately been left at the service course. As consolation, they were offered microwavable rice that came conveniently packaged in plastic bags. The ensuing series of confrontations between hungry riders and team personnel were gruesome. By the next race, one rider brought his own personal rice cooker onto the bus. Even that rice cooker was later confiscated as rogue “non-sponsor-issued contraband.”
The moral of the story is that it’s difficult to change old habits, foolish as they may be.
Enter Chef Biju?
Right. Having someone cook for you or fighting over what someone cooks for you is very different than having the know-how and motivation to cook for yourself. For me, the knowledge and motivation came after I met Biju. Biju was catering a dinner party for Jonathan Vaughters. His meal was incredible! Not just delicious but profoundly simple and nourishing. I immediately began talking to Biju about his cooking style, about food, and about helping me make great nutrition through great meals more accessible for the athletes I coached.
Biju and I quickly became friends through the process. Not only did we share a common love of food and cycling, we had similar upbringings. We both immigrated to and were raised in the United States, we both grew up riding and racing bikes, and we were both caught between incredibly diverse food cultures that ran the gamut from ethnic street food to over-the-top family gatherings that featured recipes from India, where Biju is from, or from China and the Philippines, where my family is from. We took our conversations about diet and nutrition a step further; instead of talking with athletes about food theory, we began actually cooking with them, not just cooking for them.
The Feed Zone Cookbook is a manifestation of countless conversations, endless days on the road in hotel kitchens, race meals made in cramped motor homes, and the often comical times cooking with our very close friends, many of whom just happen to be some of the best professional cyclists in the world. This book is a reference for athletes looking for no-nonsense, race-proven ideas.