Nothing is left to chance for the Turkish U-17 national team. Well before the players, coaches and other members of the party hear their morning alarm, head chef Mustafa Alkan (46) has begun his early morning shift in the spacious kitchens at the team hotel, preparing breakfast single-handedly as he will do for every meal of the day. The Turkey party enter the dining room on the first-floor at 10 am licking their lips in anticipation of Alkan's morning creation. Breakfast ahead of the semi-final meeting with Brazil comprises a variety of cheeses (young, ripened and goat's cheese), olives, tomatoes, eggs, and Turkish specialities tahin and pekmez, a paste created from crushed sesame seeds.
Alkan has catered to Turkish national teams at tournaments a long way from home since 1996. He is normally responsible for the U-21s, but on this occasion he has joined the U-17 touring party at the World Championship in Peru. The initial contact with the Turkish Association came via friends. Alkan had made a name for himself at famous Istanbul restaurant Köse Basi Kebabçi and still supervises the kitchen there when he is not away on football duty.
"I'm proud and privileged to act as chef for the Turkish players. I enjoy it tremendously. I love my country, so I'm glad to contribute something to our overall success," the man himself declares. His work began weeks ahead of the tournament, as he assembled more than 300 kilograms of foodstuffs ready for transportation from his home country to the Andean nation, including 135 kilograms of cheese, 20 kilos of olives and 35 kilos of cake.
The entire Turkish party are understandably enthusiastic about Alkan's culinary art. "I collect cookbooks from all over the world, and I have quite a few now. I select the best recipes and refine them for Turkish tastes. Our cuisine is very wide-ranging, our kebabs are a fantastic example of that." Alkan is able to prepare 300 to 400 dishes from memory, "but it's not really that many when you consider I started cooking 37 years ago," he modestly explains.
Carb-rich cuisine before matches
The 1 pm break sees the party down cakes, biscuits, toast and bananas, accompanied by tea, coffee, milk or orange juice. We are only too happy to accept an invitation to a late lunch at 3.30 pm, just three-and-a-half hours before the players face the might of Brazil. Few words are spoken during the meal as the players focus fully on the forthcoming match. Carbohydrates dominate the menu. We are served spaghetti with plenty of cheese but no sauce, accompanied by chicken and a range of salads, bananas, tomatoes, and stewed apple for dessert. In no time at all, the players have eaten their fill before exiting the dining room in the same determined and composed manner they entered it.
It is not hard to satisfy the players, Alkan explains. "They love everything I make for them. If it was a restaurant in Istanbul, the customers would be asking for a variety of salads and desserts, but here the menu is a collaboration between the doctor and the team."
Minutely-detailed nutrition plan
A full three months ahead of the tournament, Alkan and team officials drew up a minutely-detailed and wide-ranging nutrition plan for matchdays and rest days alike. Should any player have a special request, "he has to talk to the doctor and team officials first. I'll only cook something different if I've been given the green light. Ahead of the tournament we do pull together a list with alternatives, a range of desserts for example, and then I prepare whatever the majority wants."
Following the bitter 4-3 defeat against Brazil, the team sat down to a late evening dinner at 9.30 pm, offering everything they could possibly want. However, the players had lost their appetite for the sumptuous spread featuring soup, potatoes, rice, Turkish beans, steak and a plethora of salads and desserts. One delicacy was the pleasantly sweet sekerpare, an almond bake sweetened with golden syrup.
Once the players had eaten what they could, Mustafa Alkan finally found time for his own dinner. As the day slowly drew to an end, the Alkan retired to recharge his batteries ahead of the following morning. The likeable head chef was due back on duty after just six hours sleep.