DOHA, Qatar. It was mid-September evening in southern Spain. In the cafeteria where the US men’s team ate, a chair was pushed back. Everyone stopped to look. There was a rite of passage.
The rule is clear: you must sing. Players, coaches, staff, no matter the position, every new member of the US Soccer program should do it. And so Giulio Caccamo, always smiling and energetic new chef for Americans, climbed into a chair and prepared to serenade the crowd.
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“Everyone gave me the same advice: just get up and sing an old Italian song that no one understands, and then you can sit down,” said Caccamo, who grew up among the canals of Venice. “I said, ‘No way! I’m not going to do that.”
He laughed. “So I sang Elvis.”
The players applauded, and Caccamo beamed. It’s an unlikely connection. Caccamo grew up in Italy and has spent much of his professional career working in international restaurants from the Middle East to South America.
How then did he start cooking for the US? The short answer, as you might expect, is simple: they liked his food.
Caccamo worked at the Intercontinental Hotel in San Salvador last fall when the US played El Salvador in World Cup qualifiers. US Soccer usually does not have a full-time chef; they usually just work with the chef at whatever hotel they’re staying at while they’re on the road to prepare their meals. But in El Salvador, federation staff, including coach Gregg Berhalter, were impressed with Caccamo’s efficiency and attention to detail in preparing for their visit.
Then, more importantly, everyone liked what he did.
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There were conversations. An agreement was reached. Caccamo began working on the menu and contacting the team’s nutritionists via email before heading to the US for the September Worlds training camp. It was there that Caccamo underwent the ritual of singing and also strengthened his relationship with the players and staff. Berhalter, a well-known gourmet, had a very specific topic he wanted to discuss: what are the subtleties needed to prepare a proper and authentic tomato and bacon?
“As an Italian, I love this kind of talk,” Caccamo said proudly.
In Qatar, the pressure on Caccamo is significant. Overseeing every meal for 26 players and dozens of support staff over the course of a week-long tournament requires careful planning, not to mention endless hours of actual food preparation. Caccamo also juggles various dietary needs and preferences. (Among other things, two US players are vegan, and there is one person in the group who is allergic to pine nuts.)
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At any hour of the day or night, Caccamo and a team of 12 staff work in the kitchen at the Marsa Malaz Kempinski where the Americans are staying, which is separate from the kitchen used by the hotel’s restaurants. Caccamo also makes occasional trips to local vegetable stalls or fish markets to bring back the freshest ingredients.
“Honestly, he’s fantastic,” said striker Tim Weah, who regularly has access to high-quality gastronomy as he has lived in France for the past five years. “He’s a really thoughtful and creative person,” Weah added, “and he changes things up enough that it’s never boring. It’s really cool”.
In terms of tastes, the mostly young US team rightly represents the norms of their generation: burritos, quesadillas, and generally anything you can buy at Chipotle are staples, especially before an important match. That’s not a problem for Caccamo, though he said cooking for athletes rather than wealthy hotel guests requires a slight shift in philosophy.
In a restaurant, taste is everything: you do whatever is necessary in terms of seasoning, he said, to make sure your customers enjoy their food. However, for athletes, simply adding more oil (or oil, or salt, or sugar) to a recipe is not an option when your clients need to run for 90 minutes in extreme heat and excruciating pressure. However, Caccamo is taking on the challenge and trying to use the variety of cuisines – “some days we’ll go to Japan, some days we’ll go to Mexico or Brazil” – to keep players interested.
In addition, there are special requests: Sergino Dest, for example, famously eats plain bread before a match (ideally a baguette), and Caccamo said he has ensured a steady production of a fresh loaf every morning, including gluten-free bread for those who prefer it. Caccamo also has to work on the cake recipe as Yunus Musa’s birthday is November 29 and the team wants to celebrate their midfielder’s 20th birthday.
All of this worries Caccamo, who said that the best part of working with the American team is the sense of unity he found within the group. His favorite Italian team failed to qualify for the World Cup. “Next question, please,” he said politely when asked what he thought, “so Caccamo is committed, both emotionally and professionally, to helping American players get to the top of their game.
“I work but I feel like I’m in a family and it’s so wonderful,” he said. “I know that I also have a role to play. I want the players to come into the room every day and say, “Let’s see what the Chef has in store for us today!” I want my food to help them get excited about what they’re doing.”