SACRAMENTO, California — Being a chef at the Olympics is almost a sport in itself. With barely any time to breathe, there are several unknown variables to cooking for a team — whether it will advance, how much prep is needed, and the availability of local ingredients, among them.
It takes a lifetime of dedication to be able to cook for Olympians.
Now 28, Brett Eisen has been flipping omelets and making healthy food since he was 7 years old. At his bar mitzvah, Eisen collected pots and pans for a local food pantry under the theme “Kicking It Up a Notch,” an homage to celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse.
“I realized at a young age that I was this white, Jewish guy and needed as much help as possible to make the starting lineup in basketball. I knew if I could better myself through healthier eating, I would do better in sports,” says Eisen. He realized, “I also wanted to travel and work with athletes and implement real food and nutrition — in a nutshell, live a healthier lifestyle.”
When he was 18, Eisen entered a chef contest and earned a four-year scholarship to Johnson & Wales College of Culinary Arts in Denver, Colorado, thanks to a menu of oven roasted Chilean sea bass, couscous cakes, and fennel salad — inspired by a recent trip to Israel.
Still, none of these accomplishments compares to cooking side-by-side with his mentor and fellow member of the tribe, Chef Adam Sacks, at the XXIII Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Eisen was educated at the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter day school in St. Louis, and raised in the JCC gymnasium and on the grounds of a Jewish camp in the Ozarks. His decision to attend Denver’s Johnson & Wales was precisely because of Sacks. The two, who met at the culinary academy in 2008, share a passion for sports, wellness, and food — and now are fueling the US Ski and Snowboard team.
Sacks is an adrenaline junkie who is as comfortable participating in triathlons, marathons, extreme hiking, and kayaking as he is in the kitchen. He began sharing his love of sports and nutritious food while opening the door to his home to a young Eisen during the High Holidays.
“He was so wide-eyed and goofy, but in an endearing and engaging way,” Sacks recalls of his first meeting with the student chef. “He was so sincere. I loved him right away. He was passionate and had direction. He knew exactly what he wanted.”
And all he wanted was to cook for athletes.
Fueling athletes for maximum performance
PyeongChang is not the first Olympics for either chef. Eisen landed in Brazil in 2016 after the scheduled chef for the US Women’s Soccer Team discovered she was pregnant and unable to travel. Sacks was appointed executive chef for the 2008 Olympic Track and Field Training Camp in Beijing, the summer before the pair met.
And although the Olympics is associated with its share of hype, the seasoned Sacks takes it in stride.
“Cooking is cooking,” he says. “It is the most basic thing. The athletes are hungry and we provide food. They want comfort food, food that tastes good, food that is familiar.”
Eisen agrees, rattling off some of the menu items he prepared in Brazil, such as an omelet bar, a pasta bar, or homemade energy bars for them to eat at halftime with flavors like chocolate, blueberries, and pecan, with all types of nuts and seeds like chia and flax, local honey, and lemon.
Regardless, Sacks’s athleticism informs his cooking, which he has been doing since he was 14 years old as a way to channel his boundless energy. Learning how to fuel himself, he prepares what he calls “athletic performance cuisine” that is packed with nutrition for actively metabolic individuals.
“My food is not ‘Lean Cuisine,’” Sacks jokes, referring to the brand of frozen dinners. “I make things as nutrient dense as possible. There is a reason for everything on my plate and that is to provide the optimal way to get nutrients inside my body. Whatever I give the athletes, it will make them perform at their best. Health and wellness are at the epicenter of my decisions.”
A culinary journey
Like his mentor, Eisen has taken his trifecta of passions, food, sports, and Judaism — along with his associate’s Degree in Culinary Arts and Bachelor’s Degree in Nutrition and Science from Johnson & Wales — and parlayed them into a successful career. Still, he never forgets how he got his start in his childhood kitchen, where he could be found re-purposing family Shabbat dinners long after the meal ended.
“I would take the leftovers, chop them up, and create new dishes,” he says. “I was into sports and into cooking, so focusing on wellness happened organically.”
Sacks’ footprints are all over Eisen’s culinary journey. The senior chef began opening doors for Eisen, beginning with the Denver Broncos. Eisen became the team’s first intern to counsel athletes about their diets and to serve as a personal chef.
Sacks called it “a time for the young chef to define himself.” He knew that if Eisen showcased his skills and passion, his network would build momentum for the next gig. He was right.
Eisen switched from football to college basketball, and headed from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Northwest and the University of Oregon in Eugene.
There, he worked with the head dietician to create all in-house food for the athletes and cooked for all of the incoming freshman football players. They supplied the basketball team with the leftovers, eventually putting food into the mouths of 500 athletes.
Then California came knocking, and he worked in the Berkeley restaurant of a culinary school friend and fellow Jew, hosting pop-up dinners under the name “Pita Project,” where he introduced modern Israeli cuisine or, as Eisen describes it, “Middle Eastern food meets Western flavors.”
Soon after, he achieved the goal he had set for himself when he entered the Johnson & Wales chef contest, which was to cook for a pro-NBA team within 10 years of graduating. In 2015, he landed a gig with the Sacramento Kings.
Preparing homemade shakshuka and hummus for then-Kings’ #18, Omri Casspi, the first Israeli to be selected in the first round of an NBA draft, he remembers the 6’9” forward doing a double take when Eisen greeted him with a boisterous boker tov (good morning) and a wry smile.
Eisen added challah French toast to the breakfast menu, used the opportunity to introduce players to a variety of fresh ingredients — including herbs from a garden that he planted outside of his kitchen — and was inspired daily by the new state-of-the-art facilities.
“It was all about building camaraderie through food,” he says of the experience.
Today, as a wellness chef, nutrition consultant, and founder of Fuel Good in Northern California, Eisen offers performance nutrition counseling, teaches basic cooking skills and menu planning, organizes kitchens, and conducts food shopping tours.
“It’s been an evolution seeing his passion come to fruition,” Sacks says of watching Eisen’s developing career. “He had a dream and he never changed his dream. I am exceedingly proud. Wherever he goes, I’m right there with him and for him. It was always our dream to work side-by-side in a venue like [the Olympics].”
Adds Eisen, “When I met Adam, I was an 18-year-old who didn’t know his future. It’s been 10 years since we met. Now, I’m cooking right beside him. It’s the best part of being at the Olympics.”