"Being with those guys in that kitchen, there's nothing to be nervous about."
Except those guys are Daniel Boulud, Tom Colicchio, David Bouley, Daniel Humm and Florian Bellanger, five of the most renowned chefs in the world. They donated their time and resources to put on the Gold Medal Dining Experience to raise money for the USA Swimming Foundation. And Garrett Weber-Gale served these butter and dairy-loving epicureans a butternut squash soup without heavy cream.
Why would he be nervous?
But there was more to the two-time Olympic gold medal swimmer's offering than appeared in the golden-hued bowl. The sum of his experiences both in and out of the pool were in every spoonful, whether the chefs or 52 guests who gathered at the Bouley Test Kitchen in New York City three weeks ago knew it or not. Weber-Gale's journey, although far from over, had come full circle in a humble bowl of soup. One he hadn't even considered making.
"When I first came up with the concept I wasn't planning on cooking a course," Weber-Gale admits. "Daniel was the one who came up with the idea of me cooking a course as well. He said, 'Why don't you do a soup course?'"
It's fitting that his friend and mentor, really the catalyst for his Michelin-starred odyssey, would suggest a larger role than organizer of the charity event. Weber-Gale, kept out of the pool at times by high blood pressure, began cooking for himself in college. What he found was more than a way to simply regulate his diet. In 2008, after winning two gold medals in Beijing, his culinary passion would be taken to the next level by a chance meeting with Boulud. The acclaimed chef would first open his own doors then help the swimmer get a series of stages or culinary internships at some of the world's finest restaurants. It came to a head when Weber-Gale was invited to help alongside Boulud, Colicchio, Humm and others at the La Paulée Gala Dinner last February.
Wanting to benefit a charity close to him, Weber-Gale contacted his inner circle of chefs and asked them to be a part of the Gold Medal Dining Experience. There was just one catch.
"I asked them to cook a course in their own personal style, but with a healthy twist," Weber-Gale says. "One of the things I wanted to get out of the event was showcasing that delicious food can be healthy for you."
Venison with heritage grains and huckleberries. Wild mushrooms with toro and black truffles. John Dory poached with citrus. Peekytoe crab with apple and walnut dressing. Caramelized phyllo dough with lemon sherbert and passion fruit sauce.
And don't forget about the butternut squash soup.
Weber-Gale's contribution to the dinner was not only a hit with the chefs and guests, but it perfectly tells his story.
The original recipe came from Maison Troisgros in France, twice named the best restaurant in the world. Weber-Gale completed a stage there in the fall of 2010, and has made the soup part of his long repertoire learned during his travels.
In keeping with his mission of healthy eating, he has adapted the ingredients to suit his own palate and needs.
"I took out the heavy cream and used rice milk instead," Weber-Gale reveals. "The flavor is just as good, if not better."
But he's still learning. The chefs at DANIEL showed him how to stud the butternut squash halves with cloves and star anise before roasting. And to enhance the flavor and presentation, they helped him garnish the soup at the Gold Medal Dining Experience with chive oil and almond foam. And despite the pressure of a $1,500 per plate dinner, Weber-Gale credits the presence of culinary royalty like Boulud for keeping his nerves down.
"When you're around guys like that, they make you look good," he says. "In that scenario, I'm not the expert. I'm the apprentice, the student."
But he's also becoming an authority. Weber-Gale is building a career for after his swimming days through his website AthleticFoodie. It's a resource for athletes and non-athletes alike on proper nutrition and living a fuller life through a better diet. The idea isn't about counting calories, as evidenced by the charity dinner three weeks ago. No one tallied the nutritional information. It was the guests who weighed in on whether or not the goal was achieved.
"People came up to me and after amuse-bouche, cocktail hour and six courses thought they'd be super full, but said, 'I feel great. I feel vibrant,'" Weber-Gale happily reports. "That's the ultimate. You want to feel good after a meal, not bogged down."
You also want to leave them wanting more, which is exactly what happened. Not only was there more demand for tickets than spots available, several guests hoped aloud that the event would be put on again next year. Even some of the chefs began discussing how they could make it bigger and better in the future, something that awes even a two-time gold medalist.
"It was such a huge honor for me to have them there," Weber-Gale beams. "These guys have big restaurants to run. It was wonderful that they gave their time to help me."
Weber-Gale hopes to continue the event in the future, as long as they're raising awareness and money for causes near and dear to his heart. It's too early to say what he'd cook next time, but here's hoping he stays in the same category. Legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher said it best:
"It is impossible to think of any good meal, no matter how plain or elegant, without soup or bread in it."
You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamkwatson.
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