Feeding the 5000 – England chef Omar Meziane talks soup strops and World Cup wonder

England chef Omar Meziane tells Holly Hunt about catering for the Three Lions at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Joe Hart’s soup strop and what the Spice Girls and the England national team have in common.

The majority of England supporters recognise Kieran Trippier as the hero of the country’s 2018 World Cup campaign. England made it to the semi-finals of the competition for the first time since 1990 and it was the defender that rippled the net within the first five minutes.

However, it should be England’s personal chef, Omar Meziane, that takes the plaudits for that particular cup run. Behind the scenes, it was the professional cook that masterminded the campaign that restored Three Lions fans’ faith in their country.

“I’m not saying we won the Under-20s World Cup because I cooked the food or that we got to a World Cup semi-final because of my food, but we did!” Meziane laughed.

The 40-year-old’s association with the England national team began in 2017, when he was invited to cater for the Under-20s as they jetted off to South Korea with huge expectation on their shoulders.

“I got the call on the Thursday and on the Sunday, I was on an airplane to South Korea. I packed my bags, said goodbye to my wife and son and said, ‘Look, I’ll be back in 10 days because it’s England football, right?’ We get knocked out at the group stages every time!

“Forty-five days later and we came back as the first England team to have won anything in 51 years. I’ve got a wonderful, shiny gold medal that takes pride of place on my landing at the moment. I think one day I’ll be buried in it,” he joked.

Meziane’s efforts with the youth team didn’t go unnoticed, either. The next thing he knew, he was back out on a plane to Russia with the England senior squad.

“It was a Wednesday afternoon – that’s how vividly I can remember it – and I was walking around Waitrose doing some shopping.

“My phone rang and it was an unknown number. The gentleman on the other end of the phone said, ‘Hi Omar, it’s Gareth Southgate here. I want to thank you for what you did with the Under-20s and I’d love for you to come and work with us.’ I’ve never looked back.”

And although Jordan Pickford kicked his seat for the most part of the journey, he still holds those months as one of the most “surreal” experiences of his life.

“It’s every little kids dream to go to a World Cup, although possibly not as a chef. I was rubbish at football and better at cooking so I got there but just not in the capacity that I ideally wanted!

“You have to pinch yourself and sometimes you have to ask yourself the question, ‘What on earth am I doing here? How have I got here?’

“You’re living in each other’s pockets for 55 days which forms a special bond. There’s a level of respect that everybody has for one another.

“It’s just a shame that we didn’t walk away from Russia with a medal because then I could’ve had two to balance out the picture hooks that I’ve got at the top of the stairs but there’s always next time.”

He took on the role on a more permanent basis but it wasn’t until some players began to push back that he realised he had a “mammoth” task on his hands.

“Initially, there wasn’t a day where I didn’t say to myself, ‘I don’t think I can do this’ or ‘I’ve got it wrong’. If you’re changing human habits, you can’t go in like a bull in a China shop. It’s got to be done slowly over a period of time.

“Something that I have done with England in particular is really develop the food offering. I’ve noticed a massive change in the way in which they eat now. The temptation to have the odd bit of chocolate or the occasional can of carbonated drink have gone.

“I like to think that’s somewhat part of my food because they reduce those temptations when they know what they’re getting from me is the best that it can be.

“Now, if I was to put out some of my chocolate brownie, the vast majority won’t have it and they’ll go and have yoghurt instead because they understand the benefit to themselves.”

Meziane’s style is inspired by his heritage and his father, who was also a chef, who hails from Morocco.

However, not everybody appreciated the chef spicing up the menu. Former Three Lions goalkeeper Joe Hart took one sip of Meziane’s new recipe soup, walked up to the chef and demanded to know what on earth it was, and he never served it again.

“Not everyone wants to eat quinoa and kale every day,” he admitted. “The Joe Hart incident was down to my inexperience. I was trying to run with the food before I walked.

“It was about taking my time and introducing things slowly. I needed to make food that was more recognisable and above anything, not putting Persian spinach soup on the menu so I learnt very quickly!

“I needed to put my ego away in the bag and cook food that they want. It’s taught me a lot about being humble as a cook. They’re very normal eaters and 99.9% of them are appreciative people.”

Meziane has catered for the rich and famous across all industries, including the members of the best-selling pop group, the Spice Girls.

Since starting out with England, Meziane has befriended the likes of Fabian Delph and Ashley Young but does he ever feel intimidated by his clients and colleagues?

“When I started at England, the biggest star for me was the manager. He was a player as I was growing up and one of my footballing heroes. You become incredibly nervous and a little bit shell-shocked at meeting these people and being around them.

“You have to realise on a professional level that you are there to do a job and put that to one side. The thing that drives and motivates me is that I want to be better at everything that I do and surrounding myself with people who, arguably, are at the very top of their game makes me better.”

When England are off duty, Meziane keeps himself busy by catering for individual players. He’s worked with the likes of Chelsea and Fulham, and even began his own takeaway service during the pandemic, delivering meals on wheels to footballers’ doors!

“There are a lot of players that come back from England to their clubs, they talk about the food and they ask their nutritionists if they can get the recipes.

“I was contacted by nutritionists at these clubs and asked if I could cook in some of their homes for them in their evenings. COVID put a stop to that so I started to put food into a box and deliver it to their homes.”

Meziane, who spent the first 10 years of his career working in restaurants and hotels, explained how working with the England team, among other sports clubs, had saved his otherwise “ordinary and average” career.

“The move into sport was a last ditch attempt at trying to stay cooking,” he explained. “I was at the point where I was going to give it all up. It’s a really hard job. I’d made the decision in the back of my mind to stop cooking professionally and I decided to become a salesman instead. I fell in love with the environment of being around professional athletes.”

Although he had little experience of catering for footballers or athletes, Meziane found that some of his existing skills were transferrable and he even took some of his inspiration from Sporty Spice.

“It was slightly surreal to be sat in Mel C’s kitchen while she’s making me a cup of tea!” he exclaimed.

“Players train incredibly hard and the enjoyable part of the day is being able to sit and enjoy other people’s company, and enjoy that moment in time with really delicious food.

“Musicians and artists also work incredibly hard to train so they can perform at the very highest levels. Again, we fed Mel C the right kind of food to ensure that she could hit all of her performance goals on stage. And I got to go to one of the concerts!”

For a man who has spent the vast majority of his life with his “head stuck in an oven”, he hasn’t done bad. Two major tournaments later, Meziane will never tire of meeting the England team’s every need and he hopes to be joining the squad for the delayed European Championships this year.

“The one thing that will never make the hairs not stand up on the back of my neck is walking out of the tunnel at Wembley and bear witness to a stadium filled with 90,000 people.

“It’s a pretty special thing, isn’t it?”

Follow Holly on Twitter at @hollyhunt10

Follow Omar on Twitter at @TweatFresh

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