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The 2022 Boston Marathon is a return to form after a virtual edition in 2020 and a limited field of athletes taking part in an October 2021 edition. Nearly 30,000 competitors are descending on Massachusetts to participate on Monday, April 18, including more than 140 professional athletes. In fact, the 126th race boasts the fastest fields of elite women and men to ever run the Boston Marathon.
It’s also a return to form for the hotel tasked with taking care of these world-renowned athletes: The Fairmont Copley Plaza has been the headquarters of the Boston Athletic Association for the last 30-plus years — even the most tenured employees can’t quite recall how long the partnership has endured, said the hotel’s public relations director Lauren Soriano — and it’s once again housing most of the elite athletes.
It’s a responsibility that calls for lots of protein, rice, and Gatorade.
“These marathon runners consume probably 3,000 to 4,000 calories a day,” Fairmont Copley’s executive chef Zaid Khan said. “We’ve ordered 400 pounds of chicken, 400 pounds of salmon. We’ll go through 500 pounds of cooked rice, 400 pounds of cooked pasta …”
Beginning with Thursday lunch and ending after dinner on Tuesday, the Fairmont Copley Plaza’s “Athlete’s Village” will serve 17 different meal periods, plus snacks. The security-guarded buffet is a respite for 100 professional runners and their families for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, tucked in the St. James Room away from the rest of the bustling hotel.
Khan has been planning these meals since February, when he first discussed the Copley’s marathon weekend menus with Boston Athletic Association officials. Considering the needs and desires of the athlete-guests — who include Olympians, Paralympians, world record-holders, and marathon champions — the food avoids heavy cream, butter, and spicy sauces. “We have to get creative with how we make the food appetizing and flavorful,” Khan said, which means using plenty of fresh herbs, citrus, salt, and black pepper.
Think chicken with a zesty gremolata, beef with herbaceous chimichurri seasoned with red wine vinegar, and Atlantic blue cod with a lemon-caper vinaigrette — alongside an endless supply of complex carbohydrates, of course. The athletes’ portions are generally moderate through Saturday, Khan said, while carbo-loading begins in earnest on Sunday morning leading into Marathon Monday.
White rice is served at every meal, and the Copley is sourcing injera and chapati — flatbreads traditional to cuisines of Africa, from where many of the elite runners hail — from Boston-based distributor Imported Foods.
“[The athletes] really do appreciate our efforts made in that regard,” Khan said about providing culturally relevant food.
Corned beef hash, a breakfast-menu mainstay of the hotel’s OAK Long Bar + Kitchen, is popular among the athletes. The morning spread also features tons of antioxidant-packed fruit, granola, and chia seed parfaits, plus grab-and-go protein bars and bottles of sports drinks and water. Warm milk is another athlete-favorite replenisher, Khan has learned. The hotel provides a consistent stock of compostable containers in the Athlete’s Village so competitors can take sustenance back to their rooms or out to their training.
“Keeping [the food offerings] interesting, healthy, and fulsome is what we’re going for,” Khan said.
To hit those marks, the chef began procuring ingredients about 10 days ago, working with the hotel’s usual purveyors, farmers, and suppliers. “We want to showcase and support the best in New England with our menus, especially with our seafood products and produce,” Khan said. He will accept deliveries through Sunday, which isn’t typically a receiving day, because there won’t be any deliveries on Marathon Monday. “We have to go big and make sure we have everything in this building that we could possibly need.”
The hotel experiences some of the same issues any consumer is likely to have noticed at grocery stores these past several months.
“In this little wrinkle in time, the supply chain is stretched,” Khan said. “It’s not just a marathon. It’s been the entire last two years of COVID.” That’s why menu planning so far out is important: It builds in time to change course, if necessary. Khan said there was one major sourcing challenge ahead of setting up this year’s Athlete’s Village, but he declined to specify the ingredient. He’s moved on. “I’ve managed to make the necessary adjustments,” he said.
It’s not just the Athlete’s Village that Khan is planning for, either: The Copley Plaza hosts breakfast for the organizers throughout the weekend, plus press lunches and receptions for sponsors. The hotel is also generally busy with in-room dining and at OAK Long Bar. Khan anticipates providing about 6,000 meals over the next several days.
While the athletes are just beginning to arrive at the Fairmont Copley Plaza, to Khan, the marathon is basically over. After all of the executive chef’s diligent planning, the hotel’s team of banquet cooks and sous chefs are in the lead now. Khan is looking ahead, anticipating problems that might come up this weekend, and getting his team ready for the hotel’s post-marathon “normal” later next week.
“We’re like ducks, right? You got to be calm on the surface and the little legs are pumping under water,” Khan said. “That’s what we’re like in the food service in the hotel industry.”
And he’s just enjoying the atmosphere of his first full marathon weekend in Boston. “You see a doorman welcoming back guests and athletes by name, which is pretty incredible,” he said. “It’s like seeing old friends, almost like family.”
While he’s used to managing big events at any hotel he’s ever worked at — “This is called a different name at a different hotel” — Khan only arrived in Boston in 2019. He was initially chef de cuisine at the Copley Plaza, and then took over culinary operations at the height of the pandemic shutdown in 2020. The 2021 Marathon, which happened in October, was a taste of the hotel’s biggest weekend of the year, but it was a smaller field of athletes. The timeframe also coincided with the Copley’s usual wedding season, making it unusually busy and chaotic, Khan recalled. “This year in comparison, I feel a lot better about it,” he said.
“We’re at our own little start line here at the Fairmont Copley Plaza. Everything’s forward-facing again,” Khan continued. All the planning meetings, the 14-hour days of the marathon weekend ahead, even the supply-chain challenges: “These are brilliant problems to have.”
The hotel culinary team is on its mark, and ready to go.
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