Chef Adam Sacks on Cooking for Athletes

Chef Adam Sacks is passionate about educating aspiring chefs about culinary arts, nutrition, fitness and wellness.

By Rebecca Heaton

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Since 1999, Chef Adam Sacks has served as a chef instructor and sports dietitian at Johnson & Wales College of Culinary Arts in Denver, where he develops and teaches courses including Vegetarian Cuisine and Athletic Performance Cuisine. In his “spare” time, he has had the honor of cooking for top-level athletes at two Olympic Games, most recently in South Korea. We caught up with him to learn more about his culinary journey.

Tell us about the path you followed to becoming a chef.

When I was young, my mom was not a great cook, and I was an exceedingly picky eater. So, I honed very basic skills from a young age and was formally introduced to this crazy industry before I was legally old enough to vote. I loved it. The intensity, sense of purpose and hot-headed rivalry fueled my passion and competitive nature for the arts. I worked a lot in my early years, getting by with grit and really good shoes. I eventually formalized my training by going to cooking school, apprenticing in Europe and earning my certification as a chef de cuisine. 

I recognized the importance of healthy eating early on. I resided in California in the ’80s; the cuisine scene was erupting and forever changed my perspective on cooking, sustainability and accountability. Eventually, my commitment to healthier outcomes for my community led me to become a registered dietitian, too.

You teach a course called Athletic Performance Cuisine. Tell us about that.

It is an applied culinary sports nutrition class that charges students to develop and execute meal plans for metabolically active individuals. We use nutrition, biochemistry and exercise physiology to formulate individual or team assessments, to develop a satisfying and nutritionally dense meal plan that can optimize an athlete’s training and physiological potential for sport and exercise.

Do you have a personal interest in sports?

Yes. I have been always active. If I wasn’t chasing a ball around or climbing the highest tree or boulder, I wasn’t happy. As I grew older, I fell in love with endurance sports, especially mountain biking and triathlons. Even now, I feel most relaxed and most contemplative in the outdoors, testing my VO2 max.

You’ve been an executive chef at two Olympic Games, 2008 in Beijing and 2018 in South Korea. What was it like cooking for the best of the best athletes? Any memorable events?

I try to remember that cooking for athletes is no different than cooking for your family, except that your little brother or sister wear really cool sunglasses by Oakley and have a bedroom filled with protein powders and energy bars. I enjoy cooking for folks who have devoted their resources to a specific goal. I truly admire and respect the dedication and sacrifices one must make to achieve a standard of excellence. 

I reflect most on situations that test my patience and resolve. At the China Olympics, my kitchen staff spoke Mandarin—not a word of English—yet I had to train and prepare more than 1,000 meals a day. So I devised a system of charades to convey kitchen actions or methods. It was the quietest kitchen I’ve ever worked in.

What do you like most about being a chef and instructor?

I enjoy inspiring, mentoring and coaching students. There is much satisfaction in knowing my teaching ultimately will impact the way people eat and feel.

Try some of Chef Sacks’ recipes from his classes at Johnson & Wales:

Curry Kohlrabi Fries

Strawberry Rhubarb Confit with Maple Sorbet

Grilled Artichokes with Mustard Greens Pesto

Honey Cashew Vanilla Ice Cream

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