DOHA, Qatar – It was a mid-September evening in southern Spain. A chair was pushed aside in the dining room where the United States men’s national team was eating. Everyone stopped to watch. A rite of passage was imminent.
The rule is clear: you have to sing. Players, coaches, staff – whatever their position, every new member of the US soccer program has to do it. And so, Giulio Caccamo, the always-smiling and energetic new American chef, climbed into the chair and prepared to serenade the crowd.
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“Everyone had given me the same advice, just stand up there and sing an old Italian song that nobody understands, and then you can sit down,” said Caccamo, who grew up among the canals of Venice. “I said, ‘No way!’ I will not do that.”
He laughed. “So I sang Elvis.”
The players cheered and Caccamo beamed. Theirs is an unlikely marriage. Raised in Italy, Caccamo has spent much of his professional career working internationally in restaurants from the Middle East to South America.
So how did he end up cooking for the US? The short answer is predictably simple: They liked his food.
Caccamo was working at the Intercontinental Hotel in San Salvador last fall when the USA faced El Salvador in World Cup qualifiers. US Soccer does not typically have a full-time chef; They generally only work with the chef at the hotel they are traveling to to prepare their meals. But in El Salvador, federation staff, including coach Gregg Berhalter, have been impressed by Caccamo’s efficiency and attention to detail in preparing for their visit.
Then, more importantly, everyone loved what they were making.
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Conversations were held. An agreement was reached. Caccamo began working on menus and engaging with the team’s nutritionists via email, then traveled to the United States for their training camp in September ahead of the World Cup. There, Caccamo went through the singing ritual and also strengthened his relationships with the players and staff. Berhalter, a well-known foodie, had a very specific topic he wanted to discuss: What are the subtleties that go into creating a decent and authentic meal? Amatriciana?
“As an Italian, I love such conversations,” says Caccamo proudly.
In Qatar, Caccamo’s workload is significant. Overseeing every meal for 26 players and dozens of other attendants during a week-long tournament requires careful planning, not to mention endless hours of cooking. Caccamo also juggles a variety of dietary needs and preferences. (Among other things, two US players are vegan, and there is one person in the group with a pine nut allergy.)
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At all hours of the day and night, Caccamo and a team of 12 employees work in a kitchen at the Marsa Malaz Kempinski, which houses the US, that is separate from the kitchens of the hotel restaurants. Caccamo also occasionally makes trips to local vegetable stalls or fish markets to provide the freshest ingredients.
“He’s fantastic, to be honest,” said striker Tim Weah, who has regular access to quality gastronomy having lived in France for five years. “He’s really thoughtful and creative,” Weah added, “and he’s changing things up so much that it never gets boring. That’s really great.”
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In terms of taste, the mostly young US team represents the norms of its generation: burritos, quesadillas and really anything you can get at Chipotle are staples, especially before a big game. That’s not a problem for Caccamo, although he said cooking for athletes — as opposed to well-heeled hotel guests — requires a slight shift in philosophy.
In a restaurant, flavor is king: they do whatever it takes in terms of seasoning, he said, to make sure your customers enjoy their food. For athletes, however, simply adding more butter (or oil, salt, or sugar) to a recipe isn’t an option when your clientele has to run 90 minutes in extreme heat and unbearable pressure. Still, Caccamo embraces this challenge and tries to use different cuisines – “some days we go to Japan, some days we go to Mexico or Brazil” – to keep the range of players engaged.
Then there are the special requests: Sergino Dest, for example, is known to devour plain bread before a match (ideally a baguette), and Caccamo said he has ensured a constant production of fresh breads every morning, including gluten-free bread for those who prefer it. Caccamo also has to work on a cake recipe as Yunus Musah’s birthday is on November 29 and the team want to celebrate their midfielder’s 20th birthday.
All of this is exciting for Caccamo, who said the best thing about working with the US team is the sense of unity he’s found within the group. His beloved Italian team didn’t qualify for the World Cup – “Next question please,” he said politely when asked for his opinion – so Caccamo is both emotionally and professionally committed to helping the US players through that , to get as far as possible.
“I work but it feels like I’m with a family and it’s just so wonderful,” he said. “I know I have a role to play too. I want players to walk into the room every day and say, ‘Let’s see what Chef has for us today!’ I want my food to help them get excited about what they do.”
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