Apr 02, 2010

Olympic Gold Key to Opening Kitchen Doors

By Austin Ries

Garrett Weber-Gale has a certain kind of swagger when he walks into a room.

It isn’t the swimmer’s Tarzan yell or the fist pumps the world saw at the 2008 Olympics. It’s far from his competitive instinct to “destroy” his opponents in the water and not even close to the concentration of a 13-hour workday in the kitchen cutting wild grouse or rolling pasta. This is different. You can call it carefree. You can call it living in the moment. Weber-Gale, a 24-year old University of Texas alum, calls it a lifestyle with fulfillment and satisfaction, something he picked up in the summer of 2009 in Italy. Something he learned far away from the pressures of swimming.

“People are more fulfilled in their life over there,” Weber-Gale said. “They aren’t worried about what is happening next. They just enjoy living. That’s how I like to carry myself.” He found this perspective after spending the summer of 2009 at Castello delle Regine, a 1,100-acre estate 60 miles north of Rome, where he increased his culinary knowledge and, more important, fell deeper in love with his passion.

Think brioche instead of backstroke. Gorgonzola instead of goggles.

And in a kitchen where few people spoke English, Weber-Gale learned through careful observation that simple ingredients make some of the best dishes and greatest memories in the world. “They find extreme satisfaction in eating and enjoying the little things,” Weber-Gale said. “They don’t worry about what happens next, and they don’t stress out about the future. They just enjoy each other’s company.”

Enjoying life is what Weber-Gale is doing in the two years after swimming the second leg on the 400-meter freestyle relay that won a gold medal and set a world record in a come-from-behind Olympic win over France. (He also won gold in the 400-meter medley relay.) Since the Beijing games, he’s been on the short list of swimming’s top sprinters in the world. He’s also an aspiring chef — he ate lunch with Roger Federer — and he and the rest of that relay team even won an Espy in 2008 for the best sports moment of the year.

He didn’t have time to enjoy the after-party with $30,000 gift bags and dozens of women throwing themselves at him, though. After getting the award, the team had to fly straight to Italy for the world championships. What happened to “when in Rome”? “The one time you wouldn’t want to leave we had to,” he said, with a genuine laugh. “It was every guy’s dream.”

Still, not bad accomplishments for a guy who was diagnosed with high blood pressure at the beginning of his junior year at UT. Because he did not want to take medication and risk testing positive for a banned substance, Weber-Gale turned to a low-sodium diet that eventually produced a love for cooking, with summers in Italy and weekends in New York.

His culinary dream summer abroad came after a disappointing 2009 season in which he placed third at the world championship trials in Indianapolis and second in his only race in Rome. After that event, on a beach in Italy with his family, he realized he didn’t have the stomach to go back home. He needed a break. “That was one of the few times I ever felt I lost myself,” Weber-Gale said. “I wanted nothing to do with swimming or to be involved with anyone associated with swimming. I thought I would retire. I was miserable.”

5210olympic1This wasn’t the first time Weber-Gale faced disappointment. He missed the 2004 Olympic team by 0.01 seconds when he placed seventh in the trials.

He was different back then. As an 18-year-old, Weber-Gale knew he could make the Olympic team. He just had to prove it to everyone else.

Two medals and a world record later, success is measured in gold, which is why he was so disappointed with his performance in Rome—why he had to disappear and work on his other passion.

But, he says, don’t get him wrong. He loves swimming. In fact, something about the water keeps calling him back. Even after working in some of the top kitchens with the top chefs in the world.

Garrett “has been really good getting to know really famous people in the food industry,” Texas assistant coach Kris Kubik said. “There are a lot of chefs who would cut their hand off to have some of the experiences he has had so far.” And with Weber-Gale’s nonchalance, he doesn’t often get starstruck. It takes someone special. Someone whose restaurants rate three stars from the Michelin Guide and four stars from the New York Times: French chef Daniel Boulud. Weber-Gale spent three days in Boulud’s New York City kitchen.

“I was so excited to meet him and form a relationship with him,” Weber-Gale said with a child’s grin. “He loves nurturing new talent and has been a big inspiration and motivation to continually pursue my passion.”

While the long hours inside Daniel Boulud’s restaurant were far from the open countryside and simple recipes he learned in Italy, his fame as an athlete has continued to open doors to highly coveted kitchen apprenticeships.

His time away was the perfect remedy for his frustrations with swimming. And he says he still can’t put a finger on the exact moment he wanted to take off his apron and jump back into his swimsuit.

5210olympic2“The time off gave me a perspective on swimming, and I came back wanting to beat these people,” Weber-Gale said. “I was out of my mind excited to be back with a coach and 35 other guys in the pool. I was ready to beat people again.”

Weber-Gale’s focus has turned to 2012 and the Olympic Games in London. With workouts six days a week, early mornings and a healthy diet, Weber-Gale’s main concern, whether swimming or cooking, is to help people and make a difference in their lives, the reason he started cooking in the first place. “I had a guy come up to me at nationals and said he was following my blog and lost 50 pounds in six months,” he said. “Just helping that one person is enough inspiration to keep writing and keep trying to help people. That’s why we are on this Earth.”