Garrett Weber-Gale has a lot on his plate these days ... and in his bowls and sauté pans. The swimmer who won Olympic gold medals and four world championships on relays with the likes of Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte has assembled a new all-star cast of teammates for a Gold Medal Dining Experience.
On Feb. 11 Weber-Gale, 26, will host a $1,500-a-plate dinner at the Bouley test kitchen in New York City, benefiting the USA Swimming Foundation, the charitable wing of the sport's national governing body. The roster of chefs next week includes superstar restaurateur Daniel Boulud; Tom Colicchio, host of TV's Top Chef; pastry chef Florian Bellanger, host of Cupcake Wars; Daniel Humm, executive chef at New York's swank Eleven Madison Park; and David Bouley, one of New York's top restauranteurs for the last 20 years
For Weber-Gale, working with them is like wedging your way into the batting order of the 1927 Yankees, but hold the pine tar and bring the garlic. "It's like being in a dream to work with those guys," says Weber-Gale, 26, who is simultaneously training for the London Olympics. "I ask myself how this happened."
Weber-Gale's indoctrination into the kitchen started from necessity -- in 2005 he was diagnosed with high blood pressure. "I never used to cook anything," he says. "My parents and sister cooked for me. I didn't know what I was doing."
After the diagnosis, Weber-Gale, then 20, took cooking lessons in Austin, where he swam for the University of Texas, and became hooked. Part of it, he admits, was the instant gratification. "You work at something for 30 to 45 minutes and instantly have something delicious that also makes you feel good," he says.
He discovered that alternatives to store-packaged items could also curtail his health problem. "You can buy store-bought tomato sauce with 750 milligrams of salt or you can learn to make your own and cut that to fractions." Soon, Weber-Gale was making his own salad dressings, soups and stocks with vinegars, spices and healthier flavor-enhancing alternatives - these moves helped lower his blood pressure naturally, and started lessening his body's cravings for salt.
He also began calming his cravings for sweets, replacing them with healthier alternatives. "Eating a really ripe nectarine or a great mango makes me really, really, like so very happy," he says. "There are great things the earth gives us instead of Oreos. Why not enjoy them."
In 2008 Weber-Gale and some fellow swim teammates appeared as guests on the Today Show in advance of the Beijing Olympics. Among other guests booked that day was Boulud, a chef who would surely land on the Olympic podiums of cooking with his eponymous New York restaurant Daniel. Weber-Gale was a bit like a fan meeting a world-class swimmer. "It's such an honor to meet you," he told Boulud, large eyes widening. "I just really admire everything you do."
At the 2008 Olympics, Weber-Gale won gold medals in both the freestyle and medley 4x100-meter relays. He was the second leg of the U.S. quartet that dramatically overcame the French team when Jason Lezak chased down Alain Bernard in the closing strokes.
It so happened that Boulud was at that time opening a new restaurant in Beijing called Maison Boulud, and he invited Weber-Gale for a meal there after he finished swimming. The meal at Boulud's restaurant may have been an even more life-defining event. "He was so generous and he just encouraged my fascination with what food could be," Weber-Gale said.
Later that year Weber-Gale founded AthleticFoodie, with a website dedicated to, as he explains, "a much better quality of life through better nutrition." On the site he posts recipes and has commentary from three nutritionists and other medical professionals.
He took Boulud up on an offer to come cook in the kitchen of one of his New York restaurants, a venue that in some ways was more challenging then the Olympics pools in which he excelled. "I'm confident in the water," he says. That's what I know. If Daniel has his masters in the kitchen, I'm in the second or third grade."
From there, Weber-Gale fully dove into increasing his foodie knowledge. He did a monthlong stint at a kitchen in Italy after the 2009 world championships in Rome, and in 2010 he worked for six weeks at La Maison Troisgros, a renowned restaurant with three Michelin stars in Roanne, France. "I got wrapped up in the intensity," he says. "I'm so inspired and infatuated by people doing things at the highest levels.
The pinnacle of his cooking experience came when he was selected for the opportunity to cook and train in the kitchen of Noma, a Copenhagen restaurant selected as the world's best by an international panel put together by San Pellegrino. Since the restaurant receives over a thousand requests for one spot, Weber-Gale figured his odds were about the same as winning an Olympic gold medal. "What chance did I have?" he recalls.
When applying, Weber-Gale wrote passionately about his love of food and mentioned nothing of his swimming background. If someone cared enough about his e-mail to look him up, so be it.
He spent three weeks last August working with the chefs at Noma, at times toiling for 12-hour days at one station for one part of one dish at a time. It was an unnatural skill for a 6'2" sprint swimmer who thrived in the power events of his sport to lean forward for hours to cut and slice with micro-precision. "Working in the kitchen is way more strenuous than working out or being in the pool," he says. "The tables are low for me. My back's killing me. My neck's killing me. My foot's getting swollen. I would have maybe three hours in the middle to jump in the water and it was such a relief. So helpful."
On his final day, Weber-Gale received his reward, a 36-course feast that lasted from 6 p.m. until 12:30 a.m. "I don't know how," he says, "but when I left, I didn't feel full; I felt refreshed, because everything was so fresh and light. Noma changed the way I look at meals and what food can be as an athlete and just as a person trying to stay healthy. Herbs, flowers, the precise way they extract flavors that are just right, wow."
The seed for the next week's feast was actually planted a year ago, when Boulud invited Weber-Gale to dinner at the New York restaurant Corton with his fellow culinary all-stars. "I was so honored to be there," the apprentice says, "I was out of my mind."
He was also in luck. Bellanger's kids were taking swim lessons and Colicchio used to be a swim coach. After a barrage of e-mails, the dinner for the Swim Foundation was set, with Weber-Gale guiding the ship. His only instruction: "Do something that reflects your cooking style, but with an eye toward health. It wouldn't be in keeping with what I do to serve butter-poached halibut." Though the exact menu is under wraps, Weber-Gale said he would be making a soup.
Sometime after the last dessert crumb is finished, he'll head back to training for the Olympic trials, which take place in June. If he competes or even competes beyond London, Weber-Gale knows his future. "Food is definitely going to be my career," he says. He may create cookbooks and ideally would love to host an active healthy cooking and lifestyle show on television that involves more than sitting behind a counter and stove. "I really want to target kids," he says. "They're the most malleable. I want to teach them how to cook." Even after Weber-Gale jumps out of the water for good, he can always bring it to a boil.