Photo Credit: Steve Loughlin
When she’s not cycling professionally for Hagens Berman Supermint, athlete-chef Jess Cerra spends her time building her JoJé bar brand of ‘real food’ sports energy bars and moonlighting as a Fit Chef. Once a year, Jess works as a personal chef to bike brand Cervélo at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, catering for both the Cervélo brand team and Cervélo’s pro athletes. Here, she gives us an insight into what this entails.
This was my fourth year in Kona with Cervélo and almost everyone who comes to work at Kona is seasoned. We call the team the “Cervélo A Team” which means we have this down to an art form at this point. This year was a small team: nine of us staying at the “Cervélo Safe House” which is an amazing house sprawling on the hillside, with a pool overlooking the ocean view. We had one more person staying in a condo who would come for dinner, and a Cervélo rep who also joined at points.
The Cervélo athletes are responsible for their own accommodation but they get our FULL support. We have 3-4 bike mechanics set up that completely dial in their race machines. Anything from new tyres to a new derailleur are completely taken care of. The staff also sets up and works the Kona expo. Then we have video guys and social media guys doing their thing. Everyone works around the clock. And no one complains. The group is world class and it’s a very professionally run show and set-up.
Cervélo athletes gather at the house
The Cervélo Safe House is so named because it’s a safe place for the athletes to come – no media allowed. With the exception of Triathlete Magazine who come to film and interview me about cooking. Throughout the years, we’ve had athletes over at all points. They can stop by for lunch, a snack, to relax away from the buzz or come to dinner. Some have specific dietary needs, which I know and cater for. This year, athlete James Cunnama came for Canadian Thanksgiving – I did the full spread for 20 people, down to the homemade pumpkin cheesecake. This is the only meal that I really don’t put a healthy spin on, but all the staff are from Canada, so it’s nice for them to have this comfort since they’re away from home on the holiday.
We also entertain partner companies like ENVE. So sometimes I’m cooking for 10, other times more. Last year, when the Cervélo P5X bike launched we stayed at a plantation with a house and three bungalows. We also had a second house down on the course and two condos. I was doing meals for 30 people, minimum. We kicked ass!
Morning – Coffee, breakfast and the occasional ride
I wake-up around 5-6am and get coffee started. Since it’s the staff staying at the house, the atmosphere is sometimes exhaustion but I make coffee like mad to combat this! I then make breakfast, which usually consists of an egg dish and fresh fruit. Sometimes I make pancakes, bake muffins or bread. Or I’ll poach eggs and make avocado toast with arugula and chili oil – that’s the team’s favourite breakfast.
Breakfasts I make might include the menus below, but this is for guys doing hard work in the heat all day, not the athletes.
1) Avocado toast with poached eggs, arugula and chili oil
2) Upside down pineapple muffins, simple scrambled eggs, fresh fruit
3) Chiliquilles with avocado, salsa and fresh pineapple
4) Bacon, turkey bacon, over easy eggs, homemade bread, fruit smoothies
5) Leftover egg scramble (steak, beans, chimichurri), tortillas, berry salad
6) Homemade granola, yogurt, berry fruit salad OR Overnight Muesli with nuts, raisins, dates, shredded carrot and coconut, served with scrambled eggs & chicken sausage
7) Photo shoot morning: Steel cut oats with vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, maple syrup, yogurt, tropical fruit
8) Overnight Muesli with nuts, raisins, dates, shredded carrot and coconut, served with scrambled eggs & chicken sausage
After breakfast, I clean up the kitchen. The team is worked so hard it’s nice to take care of them, do dishes, even help with laundry etc.
Next, I try to squeeze a ride or run in. If I manage my time appropriately I have time for this almost every day and that burst of activity is what keeps me going. There’s a nice 90 min or 2-hour ride loop from the Cervélo Safe House, or I jog for 30 minutes and do some bodyweight and core exercises in the driveway. Some mornings I have time for a 20-minute jog and that’s all, but even that refreshes me!
This year, we also did two full photo shoot days. We were up at 3-4am to drive to location for sunrise. I had oatmeal, fruit and hardboiled eggs ready. Then TONS of snacks for the shoot, especially JoJé bars! I was able to be a model this year since my sponsored contract had expired and is changing for next year. These were long, long days. One was 18 hours, but we drove all the way to the race day bike turnaround in Hawi and my supervisor let me ride back to the house after the shoot so I got to ride 3+ hours that day! Super cool. And windy…
I spend about 1 hour in the morning working on my JoJé brand of nutritious energy bars, and often I will sacrifice exercise time to get that done. I check work emails and do random things throughout the day, and then after I shower I lay in bed and finish emails etc. I get in 2-3 hours of that type of work scattered each day. I do all the JoJé social media, so I have to carve out time for that as well.
Lunchtime – Make-Your-Own bowls
During the non-expo days, I prepare lunch at the house. We’ll have something like a “make-your-own bowl” where I have rice, quinoa, roasted veggies, beets, salmon, steak, greens, and some sauces and the team can put together a bowl. The house joke is that I’m the “leftover chef” because usually what I make the night before appears in lunch. This is mostly true, but if I serve it in a different format or make wraps with the leftover meats it serves two purposes. The first is eliminating waste. The second is saving money and helping to stay on budget.
On expo days, I always send the first lunch with the gang. I pack a cooler of drinks and snacks. They love bubbly water (refreshing in the Hawaii heat) and meats and cheeses as snacks. Then I pack the other snacks: nuts, chips, dried mangos and they cannot survive a day without my JoJé bars. On the long expo days, I pack two lunches or bring a second one. For example, on opening expo day this year I sent them with peanut shrimp wraps and snacks. Then at 3pm I came down with fresh-baked pizza.
A typical lunch menu might be:
1) Peanut Shrimp Wraps w/ Napa Cabbage slaw
2) “5 pound turkey sandwich”. The guys love this one: turkey, turkey bacon, guac, havarti, kale, tomato
3) Shredded Ginger-Chili Braised pork wraps with wasabi slaw
4) Pasta salad – feta, sundries tomatoes, artichokes, peppers, tons of fresh herbs, pesto
5) Turkey Meatball Sandwiches – with arugula and provolone
6) Leftover Bowls – steak, salmon, rice, quinoa, greens, beets, roasted veggies, sauces
7) Quinoa Salad with papaya, blueberries, jicama, pumpkin seeds, pea shoots, served with poke
After lunch it’s another round of clean-up and then dinner prep, and usually I prep for the next day as well. I try to go to the store every third day. It takes quite a bit of planning to have everything organized for 3 days. The day I go to the store is a BIG day and it’s usually Target, Costco and the regular local Safeway or KTA. The Costco staff know me now after four years and they call me “that little girl who carries all the groceries by herself” That’s pretty funny! But true – it’s incredibly work intensive.
The Kona atmosphere
On race day I get to be a spectator and have a day off from competition which is so special. My teammate, Liza, just finished her eighth Kona, and every one of them was off the back of a full professional road racing season! She was the second amateur off the bike and onto the run.
Cervélo has always won the traditional “bike count” at Kona. They smoke it each year. In 2013, when Freddie Van Lierde won the title, that was HUGE! I cooked the pro athlete brunch that year. Rachel Joyce has had multiple 2nd places and we always cheer for her at the awards banquet. However, due to the nature of Kona there are always some super-tough days too.
By the end of race day we’re all really exhausted and trying to prepare for the pro brunch the next day. It’s a full-on team effort! Having brunch for 50 people at 11am requires prep several days out. This year I did a braised pork and fillet for a taco bar. I also did fresh Thai wraps and tons of sauces. Mingled in some Costco items and it was a huge success.
The challenge and the chaos of this event is something I love. Being a chef is a way to show my style and give love through food. I don’t have any formal training – my masters is in Exercise Physiology – but my meals are fresh and comforting at the same time. I love watching a bunch of people sit at a table with plates of my food. Then I listen, and if it’s quiet, it’s a good thing. As a cyclist chef I enjoy riding with my clients too.
Dinner – Feeding up to 20 guests
If I’ve shopped, I then organise it all and then prep dinner. Often we entertain partner companies so I have anywhere from 10-20 people to cook for. This year, Triathlete Magazine came for dinner and shadowed/interviewed me while I was cooking. The team’s favourite dinner is my steak chimichurri meal, which is a grilled steak and salmon meal served with special rice and beans, salad, and a herby Argentinian sauce.
On regular nights, we all eat together and dinner times can vary from 6:30pm to 10pm or 11pm if it’s a busy, longer day. Typical dinner menus include the following:
1) Steak & Salmon Chimichurri with special rice and beans, huge spinach salad with veggies, and herb chimichurri sauce
2) Mediterranean night – grilled steak, chicken, local sausages, roasted peppers, eggplant, cauliflower, Israeli couscous & lentils Tzatziki, Romesco Sauce, Pita
3) Shrimp tacos, cabbage/jicama slaw, fresh guac, queso fresco, stewed pinto beans, tortillas
4) Turkey burgers, sweet potato fries, huge kale salad with tons of veggies
5) Seared Ahi and Ono, Fresh mango, papaya and avocado salsa, grilled asparagus, couscous
6) Grilled salmon, roasted herbed potatoes, Broccolini, Arugula salad with beets, edamame, citrus, and goats cheese
7) Canadian Thanksgiving – the whole deal but with four beer can chickens, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, spicy lemon green beans, fresh baked bread and homemade pumpkin cheesecake with gingersnap crust
Often athletes will come for dinner or lunch. This year we only hosted James, but in the past we’ve had almost all the athletes at the house at some time. Some of them have strict diet protocols. My job is to know that and have options for them. As an athlete myself, you learn to eat for performance and how to change how your body uses food. By this I mean knowing what to eat and the right time to eat it. You start to look at food as fuel. I also understand how to look for and dissect scientific research, so I can understand why a trend like tart cherry juice is actually beneficial. I also think it’s given me a healthy approach to food and sport. I EAT. My riding buddies affectionately call me pig-pen. But I love to set that example of how food can make a strong athlete… rather than, how can I eat less and be the skinniest athlete possible.
After dinner is another huge round of clean-up. I try to be in bed by 10pm, but often it’s later.
After Kona’s finished I feel inside-out… it’s hard to explain. When I come home it takes about 3-4 days for the swelling to come completely out of my legs and ankles!
If you’re interested in helping Jess kickstart her JoJé Bar business, her Kickstarter campaign has one day left! Take a look here.
You can follow Jess via www.twitter.com/jesscerra_ and www.instagram.com/jesscerra, or by visiting her website www.jesscerra.com. For more information about JoJé Bar visit www.jojebar.com and follow the brand via social media on www.twitter.com/jojebar, www.instagram.com/jojebar and www.facebook.com/jojebar