Although Harlequins’ star signing arrived at the club two seasons ago, he’s yet to step foot on a rugby pitch.
There’s no doubt for those at the west London club, however, that Omar Meziane has been worth every penny.
Tucked unassumingly behind a Starbucks café and a sports bar at the Harlequins’ training ground, the team chef quietly goes about his business. While his corner of the kitchen is small, the food that comes out of it is plentiful.
With just one other chef for company, Meziane works quickly and efficiently. Over the course of the morning, fragrant smells begin to fill the air and piles of food accumulate.
On the menu today is Korean chicken – and lots of it. Vast trays of legs and wings are coated in a thick, sticky sauce, alongside 30 kg of potato wedges and huge bowls of brightly-colored salad. Close to 100 players and coaches will assemble for lunch just after midday, and Meziane predicts little will be left by the end of the afternoon.
Size is not the only thing that matters when it comes to feeding a rugby team. In his 10 years working as a performance chef across a range of sports, Meziane’s core ethos has remained unchanged.
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“When I’m cooking for athletes, the first thought I have is about creating delicious food. Trying to make them happy, trying to create an environment where food is king,” he tells CNN Sport.
Meziane’s CV is impressive. He cooked for the England football team at last year’s World Cup in Russia, and the year before that was part of the under-20 setup crowned world champions in South Korea. His other former employers include England Cricket, British Rowing, and Harlequins’ Premiership rivals Wasps.
On top of that, Meziane has recently released a cookbook alongside England international James Haskell. He is, so to speak, a man with a lot on his plate. The Quins players are keen to keep him at their club for as long as possible.
“We joke that he’s our marquee signing,” club co-captain Chris Robshaw tells CNN Sport.
“He brings a lot of happiness to us all, especially when you go in and see the quality of the food he produces and the variety … Hopefully we can keep him away from the FA [English Football Association] for a while and keep him here.
“The wings we had today are always pretty special, it’s quite a nice treat. The good thing about Omar is he knows on our hard days he’ll give us a little bit more a treat and obviously on the easy days he takes it a bit healthier. It’s just a great balance.”
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Meziane works with club nutritionists to draw up a menu for the week. Players tend to start the week with red meat and then turn to carbohydrates and lean proteins as game day approaches.
Rugby players come in all shapes and sizes – from speedy scrum halves to powerhouse props – and the amount of food each one consumes can vary.
The demand for quantity is not as great as the British rowing team, for example: “The heavy men during race season would eat anywhere between 6,000 and 7,000 calories a day,” explains Meziane, “a huge amount of food, especially when you consider it’s all incredibly lean, good food. It wasn’t burgers and chocolate bars.”
Quality is always important for Meziane. If he makes mistakes, people will let him know. When things go wrong in the kitchen, he finds it “personally upsetting.” But what about when he gets things right?
“I think the best compliments I actually get, especially after all these years of working with athletes now, is if they say nothing, you know you’ve done a really good job,” he says.
“There have been instances where you get really great feedback, like a particular footballer telling me that my rice pudding is particularly delicious. But generally speaking, athletes, especially when you move into game day are so focused on their job that they’ll very rarely say anything. So when they say nothing, I know I’ve done a good job.”
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There seem to be few unsatisfied customers in for lunch at Harlequins. The players roll off the training ground and a queue quickly forms as Meziane begins to load plates with wings, legs, and wedges.
While he’s the only person in the room not donning club colors, there’s no question that he doesn’t feel an affinity within this environment: “I feel so much a part of this team at Harlequins and I’ve felt so much a part of other teams I’ve been involved with,” he explains.
As for game days, he feels every win and loss as keenly as any team member. It’s a way of living and working he’s come to love.
“You have highs and lows. When you win it’s the greatest feeling in the world, when you lose it hits us as staff as much as it hits the players,” says Meziane.
“I think the thing with working in sport is it becomes incredibly addictive. That feeling of being a part of something that not many people get to experience is very special.
“I don’t think I could ever revert now back to normal life.”