On the fast track for healthful eating

Mission: Chef for GM's Le Mans race team is driven to reduce drivers' stress by providing familiar food with a French flair.

July 26, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

LE MANS, France - Early on a beautiful morning, American chef Jimmy Schmidt walks to the farmers' market below the Old Town of this medieval walled city.

The great Le Mans Cathedral looms on a cliff above the market, and as Schmidt moves among the rows of fresh produce, the smells are powerful - familiar strawberries, pungent cheeses, earthy radishes, sweet marigolds. Even the lettuce has its own sweet, fresh aroma.

Finally, he finds a stand that sells herbs and buys a case of sweet basil at five French francs a pot, which is less than a U.S. dollar.

"You buy so much, don't you have basil where you come from?" the happy salesman asks in French.

Schmidt laughs, too. He is the owner of Detroit's Rattlesnake Club, but on this mid-June trip he is chef proprietor for General Motors' hospitality effort at the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car race. He is in charge of cooking for a huge international group that includes race-car drivers, crews, GM employees, media and guests. Everywhere he goes, he makes stall and store owners happy by the size of his orders.

"My directive is to satisfy various nationalities, to find things familiar as well as things that provide a good nutritional foundation," says Schmidt, who trained in French cuisine. "For the race team, my job is to balance the sustainability issue and endurance racing. The team wanted familiar food that would take the stress out."

Schmidt has plenty of advice on how to eat:

Never eat heavy carbohydrates at night. They'll make you sleepy, he says. Crunchy foods increase stress with a vibration in the inner ear, causing fatigue - not exactly what a race-car driver wants when he is attempting to stay alert over a 24-hour race.

"What you eat and how you eat it determine how much energy you have," Schmidt says. "It's amazing."

Schmidt applies his philosophy to a menu that ranges from mango and papaya salsa for grilled shrimp to summer gazpacho and corn bread.

From the market, it is on to the butcher shop of renowned proprietor Pierre Besnard. In the Sarthe region of France, Besnard is known for his sausages and he greets Schmidt like his best friend. And why not? Every morning for a week, Schmidt has ordered 600 sausages.

"He wasn't so happy to see us at first," says Schmidt. "But we developed our relationship over a meatloaf and once we made him understand we wanted 600 sausages every day and not six, his attitude changed."

Schmidt cooks some of the meat for breakfasts and others he grills later. He advises anyone grilling sausages to "precook, a little, in a pan with a touch of water. Otherwise," he says, "they will stick and tear on the grill."

Oh, it takes a lot of nerve to bring an American chef who owns a modern American restaurant in Detroit to France to cook.

"Shhhh," says General Motors publicist Dave Hedrick. "We're trying to keep that quiet."

Try they might, but succeed? Impossible.

The auto company brought Schmidt to Le Mans to provide "comfort food," familiar dishes with a French flair, that would also keep its teams at peak performance levels throughout the grueling 24-hour race.

Herb Fishel, head of GM motorsports, chose Schmidt because he was aware of his energized cooking approach and because he knew he was capable of working with large groups. In Grosse Pointe, Mich., Schmidt organizes the cooking for 800 children a day at the University Liggett School, a college preparatory school.

In Le Mans, with the help of Belgium chef and caterer Paul Puissant and a number of assistants, he fed more than 500 people three times a day - 11,000 meals in a week.

Both Schmidt and Puissant agree that their philosophies differ.

But, Schmidt says, the idea is not to have an American cooking American in France, but to reflect what is in France.

"But Paul, like many French chefs, wants to throw a half-pound block of butter in everything," says Schmidt, smiling.

Puissant hedges, only a little.

"I respect Jimmy's ideas," he says. "And I believe in a modern kitchen. But my philosophy is that eating should make people happy."

Schmidt is not opposed to that. But his goal is that meals should first be healthful. And he is most interested in a "sustainable food diet" - using the freshest, most nutritious ingredients to keep the energy level up longer.

Despite their differences, Schmidt and Puissant combined to create magnificently fresh meals about which no one complained. Everyday tables were filled with dishes of fresh vegetables, salads and succulent main courses - with sauces on the side. A typical meal featured both French and Southwestern cuisine. For example, one lunch buffet included a baby green salad, tortilla salad, haricot vert and white-mushroom salad, barbecued chicken, tarragon glazed salmon, grilled jumbo prawns with achiote and lime glaze with papaya salsa, fruit cobblers, fresh berries and double chocolate-raspberry brownies.

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