Chef Chris earns his Stars and Stripes

15th July

Having had to watch with trepidation as a tough Italian cook stripped off to his underpants in a Naples kitchen to proudly display his Ultra tattoos, Swans head chef Chris Watkins is glad the current America tour is relatively stress-free.

Chris, 44, is overseeing and producing the culinary delights for the Swans squad for his second season after stepping out from a local hotel kitchen to meet the growing demands of life in the Barclays Premier League.

That pressure-cooker environment also includes a European adventure that saw Watkins prepare food for the Swans squad in nine different countries within the last 12 months.

The role-call reads Sweden, Romania, Russia, America, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, England and, of course, his beloved Wales.

"Let's just say it's been an interesting and sometimes testing 12 months,'' declared the Morriston-born chef. "Obviously the language barrier is the biggest problem when you are trying to describe the menu you want. You try telling a Romanian what an apple crumble is!

"Level of hygiene also varies from one country to the next, although they are all pretty good these days. I did start to panic in Romania though when they only had one good knife to share between the chefs in the kitchen. They were cutting raw meats and then vegetables with the same knife without even washing it. I had put a stop to that.

"I was lucky in Russia because the head chef was from New York, which was a relief.''

Chris visited each European hotel a few weeks ahead of the fixture to ensure things ran as smoothly and healthily as possible. Then it is planning a daily menu that gives the squad the right amount of carbohydrates and proteins an athlete's body requires before each training session or competitive fixture.

"It's more difficult in some of the Eastern European countries,'' he added. "Some countries add growth hormones to their meat which could have disastrous results if the players are drug tested. That's why it is vital we know where all the food is sourced and is not mass-produced or genetically modified in any way. It has to be organic meat.

"And, of course, we always travel with the key essentials - Heinz baked beans, breakfast tea and tomato ketchup! After all, the manager always says we need to look for that extra one per cent in our performance!''

Back at home, Chris has two main working kitchens and three chefs to look after at the club's Landore and Fairwood training complexes where they produce on average 260 plated meals a day.

"It's a challenge. But we are a team here, from the pot washer to the player who scores all the goals,'' added Chris, who began working as a chef in 1988.

"The players tell us what food they like and we try and put it into a healthy option.

"Ashley Williams, for example, likes a smoked haddock omelette with Parmesan cheese for breakfast, while Wayne Routledge loves a king prawn stir fry dish with noodles for lunch. In fact, he has it so often it is now actually on the menu as 'The Wayne Routledge'.''

One person who appreciates all the effort though is first-team coach Alan Curtis. He still remembers the dark old days at the Vetch Field where the culinary delights never stretched much further on a daily basis than a cup of tea and toast.

"We were left to feed ourselves,'' explained Curtis, "and it was normally a liquid lunch. The culture in those days was to train hard and then go to the pub for a pint!

"It was totally different back then. You could eat what you wanted and Friday was always fish and chip night from the chippie.

"During pre-season we weren't even allowed water in case it gave us a bad stomach. Refuelling was non-existent.''

Curtis and his team-mates did get a pre-match meal though when they played away.

"It was usually steak and vegetables washed down with tea, which they gave us by the bucket load to drink back then,'' he added.

"We even had black forest gateaux and cream before one game. I think the hotel gave it to us by mistake instead of another group. We didn't hang about for them to realise their mistake though. It was gone in seconds!

"That's all changed now because the modern player knows the importance of their diet. The work that Chris and his team are doing is fantastic and I know the boys really appreciate him.''

Not that any of them were around to come to his rescue when the chef found himself in an awkward position high in the Italian hills in a Naples hotel that was once controlled by the Gestapo.

A proud Swans fan of long-standing himself, it didn't take long for one of the hotel's Italian chefs in Napoli to spot his Jack Army tattoo ahead of the Europa League tie.

"One minute I'm showing him the Swans tattoo on my arm, the next thing I know he is down to his underpants displaying his Ultra tattoos spread all over his body - and with a cigarette in his mouth!" added Chris.

"I didn't know what to do. I just tried to look impressed and got out of there as quick as I could.''