While Clint Dempsey and the U.S. Men’s National Team players train for the upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup Round of 16 match against Belgium and head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and the coaching staff study strategies, the team’s Executive Chef Bryson Billapando and his kitchen staff are doing some important planning of their own. The 30-year-old nutrition maestro plans, prepares and cooks the food that will fuel the team.
Billapando started working for the team six short months ago in January, and travels with them wherever they go. He arrives in the match locations before the team arrives, so when they land, in-venue food and snacks will be waiting for them.
“When the guys get off the plane, the coaching staff, the staff and everyone gets off the plane and gets to the hotel, not a moment’s missed,” Billapando says. “The food will be ready, every single thing we have here will be there. It will all be flawless. Only the scenery will change.”
Billapando also incorporates regional foods from wherever the team is traveling, so they can get a taste of the local cuisine and culture. For example, while in Brazil the team has eaten rice and beans, a Brazilian barbeque and feijoada – a stew made with various meats and beans, and has been described as a national dish of Brazil.
“One thing that I love about traveling the world is I always try to incorporate something from that area,” he says. “Not only does it help me get more variation into the menus, but it also helps me expose the country for the guys.”
The self-proclaimed “guardian of the food” ensures that any and all of the food the team and staff eats is cooked the correct way and remains uncontaminated.
“The best way to ensure that no one gets sick is I don’t get sick,” he explains. “Because I eat all the same foods. I drink all the same water. Everything like that. It has to go through me. That’s one reason why they brought me here, so I make sure that nothing’s happening in the kitchen. That the food’s being cooked properly, that the sanitation is there, and the water is clean; everything like that.”
In fact, he says that is one thing that the players always joke with him about. If the chef’s eating the food, then it’s safe for them to eat the food. He monitors what the players eat outside of his own kitchen as well. When the team travels to restaurants, the meals must meet his standards.
“I have no problem sending food back because that’s my job,” Billapando said. “That’s why they brought me on as the guardian of the food.”
The Denver native fell into the culinary industry and worked in a few restaurants after graduating with an associate degree in culinary arts. He eventually went back to school and got a bachelors degree in nutrition.
“I put my focus into sports nutrition and research and development because I always loved science. I love food science and stuff like that,” he says. “I always had that weird knack for taking sometime and tweaking it to whatever we needed to do, which is very helpful when designing menus and recipes.”
He completed an externship in Phoenix at EXOS, formerly known as Athletes Performance. After working for a year and a half, he received an email one day about an opening with the U.S. MNT.
“I said, ‘Why not?’ I can always give it a try because the worst thing they’ll say is, ‘Nope, we’re gonna head in a different direction’ or something like that,” he recalls. “It was just a shot in the dark.”
Billapando goes through a process that involves a lot of creativity when making the menus and meals, before introducing something new to the team. He works closely with Danielle LaFata, the team’s lead Nutritionist, to ensure he cooks food that everyone will enjoy.
“I go out to restaurants and try to get inspired by things because I see it as an art form, especially when you get up into the higher end foods,” he explains. “It’s always about trying to be as creative as possible.”
The chef ensures that there are snacks and food available for the team during and in between the major meals of the day. If there are any special requests, he finds a recipe, tweaks it to meet the team’s needs and serves it.
“Being American, we love fried foods. We had to combat that, which is fun for my research and development part because I love challenges,” he says. “So, working with an EXOS recipe, we were able to make gluten free chicken fingers that aren’t fried. We breaded them and roasted them at a higher temperature and used a Pam spray to help brown them and the guys love them.”
He usually cooks around 10 pounds of chicken. By the end of the meal, all of the chicken is gone, which is a good sign for him and the kitchen staff. The chef continues to cook new things and keep certain foods on the menu that the guys go crazy for, including mango salsa.
“When we make something like a mango salsa, that we don’t have on the menu, and I just see a bunch of mangos, and I have one and say that we cannot pass this up,” he says. “That’s one thing we love down here in Brazil: the amazing fruits they have. It’s great because at the São Paulo Futbol Club, they have amazing mangos. It’s great that the produce is so fresh.”
While the chef said his interview was a “shot in the dark,” the talented food artist knows that he has one of the best jobs in the world, a fact that has not been lost on him.
“Not only are the guys representing the United States, and everything we stand for, I take it upon myself to do the same thing,” he beams. “I carry that with a huge sense of pride. Any chance I get to represent the United States excites me. Just because I know I’m a part of something so big. It’s overwhelming at times. I still can’t believe I’m doing it. It still feels like a dream.”