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An Olympic Task: Finding Good Food At The Games

Jul 10, 2012
Originally published on June 12, 2012 7:43 pm

When the 2012 Summer Olympics begin in July, a culinary starting gun will go off: Fourteen million meals will be prepared for spectators and athletes during the Olympic and Paralympic games in London.

The criticism is already pouring in.

Jacquelin Magnay, the Olympics editor at The Daily Telegraph wrote a recent article calling the food to be sold at Olympic venues "bland and over-priced." In response, an Olympic caterer sent her a custom bento box of gourmet delicacies.

But Magnay has eaten her way through eight Olympics, and she's pretty sure she knows what visitors to this one are in for.

"I have found that when you're serving masses of people, in a commercial sense, in a temporary environment, that the food is totally disgusting," she says.

$13 For Fish And Chips

Executives at the London Olympic Organizing Committee declined to be interviewed, but the committee's press release promises sustainably sourced, authentic British food.

British journalists, though, have accused the committee of exploiting a captive audience. Spectators will be paying the equivalent of $9 for what's being billed as "line-caught" tuna, $13 for fish and chips and $2.50 for a 16-ounce bottle of water.

A vendor at London's high-end Borough Market called those fair prices, though they're well above what he charges for his gourmet burgers.

"Doesn't sound like people are putting their prices up for no reason, I will say that," says Rick Hammond, owner of Posh Banger Boys. "We're in London; it's an expensive city anyway, and you get what you pay for."

Hammond points out that delivering so much food under such tight Olympic security will cost suppliers time and money.

They Can't Dive For Every Scallop

At the nearby Shellseekers Fish & Game, owner Darren Brown gave a similar, qualified thumbs up to the Olympic menu.

"We have good cod and chips there," Brown says, looking over the menu. "Farm-assured beef is good. The tuna — not classically a British fish, is it?"

Brown and his team dive for every scallop he sells. But he said to feed a mass market, Olympic organizers had to ignore small suppliers like him because their inventories can be as variable as the weather.

"To keep consistency in what I do, which is dive scallops, would be well-nigh impossible for the Olympics, really," Brown says.

The vendors of Borough Market know catering is an exercise in the art of the possible. It's also about giving the people what they want.

If Olympic spectators tire of that line-caught tuna and steel-cut British oatmeal, they can always turn to Olympic sponsor, McDonald's. The burger chain has built its biggest-ever restaurant at the Olympic park, with seating for 1,500.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Forty-seven days to go before the 2012 Summer Olympics open in London and a culinary starting gun goes off. Fourteen million meals will be prepared for spectators and athletes during the Olympic and Paralympic games. And as Vicki Barker reports from London, the criticism is already pouring in.

JACQUELIN MAGNAY: Well, I think this is the home smoked and cured Dorset sea trout with...

VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: Jacquelin Magnay, Olympics editor of the Daily Telegraph, pokes at a bespoke bento box of gourmet delicacies just delivered by an Olympic caterer, the firm's response to a Magnay article which blasted the food to be sold at Olympic venues as bland and overpriced. But Magnay has eaten her way through eight previous Olympics, she says, and is pretty sure she knows what visitors to this one are in for.

MAGNAY: I've found that when you're feeding masses of people in a commercial sense, in a temporary environment, that the food is totally disgusting.

BARKER: Executives at the London Olympic Organizing Committee or LOCOG declined to be interviewed, but their press release promises sustainably sources authentic British food. British journalists, though, have accused LOCOG of exploiting a captive audience. Spectators will be paying the equivalent of $9 for what's being billed as line-caught tuna, $13 for fish and chips, $2.50 for a 16-ounce bottle of water.

Yet, waiting on customers in London's high-end Borough Market, vendor Rick Hammond calls those prices fair, even though they're well above what he charges for his gourmet burgers.

RICK HAMMOND: You know why? It doesn't sound like people are putting their prices up for no reason. I will say that. We're in London, it's an expensive city anyway and thank you, but you get what you pay for.

BARKER: Hammond points out that delivering so much food under such tight Olympic security will cost suppliers time and money. A similar qualified thumbs-up at the nearby Shellseekers Seafood Company. Owner Darren Brown peruses the Olympic menu.

DARREN BROWN: Well, we have got cod and chips there, farm-assured beef, it's good. The tuna, classically a British fish, isn't it?

BARKER: Brown and his team dive for every scallop he sells, but to feed a mass market, he says, Olympic organizers had to ignore small suppliers like him whose inventory is as variable as the weather.

BROWN: To keep consistency in what I do, which is dive for scallops, would be nigh to impossible for the Olympics, really.

BARKER: The vendors of Borough Market know catering is an exercise in the art of the possible. It is also about giving the people what they want. If Olympic spectators tire of that line-caught tuna and steel-cut British oatmeal, they can always turn to Olympic sponsor McDonald's. The burger chain has built its biggest ever restaurant at the Olympic park with seating for 1,500. For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

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MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.