“Criticising tofu? That’s not really smart. There’s nothing to insult!”
The Athletic’s conversation with Anton Schmaus, the German national team’s chef for the last five years, begins, naturally, with a discussion of the UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s latest attack on soy-based foodstuffs.
A short time before our interview, Braverman labelled her critics as “the tofu-eating wokerati”.
Schmaus, who is attempting to incorporate plant-based nutrition into the German players’ diet, is bemused.
“We will all have to change our nutrition in general, that’s for sure, because in the next 20 years, the price for meat will rise and we have to lower our CO2 emissions,” Schmaus explains, laughing. “I think meat and fish will be a lot more expensive. So it might go back to being a luxury article — something which isn’t affordable every day.”
Schmaus has joined the Germany squad in Qatar for this World Cup, where he and his team of three chefs have taken over the kitchen of their base at the Zulal Wellness Resort to feed the 26 players and their support staff for the duration of their stay.
Quite the celebrity in Germany, especially in his home state of Bavaria, Schmaus comes from the small city of Regensburg, about 90 minutes’ drive north of Munich. His parents were the 13th successive generation of the family to run a hotel in nearby Viechtach, but he decided to strike out alone.
At 28 he opened his first restaurant, Historisches Eck, in Regensburg. Two years later, it was awarded a Michelin Star. Now aged 41, he has opened four more restaurants, and won two more Michelin Stars, as well as releasing a bestselling cookbook.
“Dumplings, creamy mushrooms — especially at this time of year,” is Schmaus’ characterisation of Bavarian food. “Sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) is a huge thing, particularly in Regensburg, with sweet mustard and sausages.”
The life of a chef is famously all-encompassing. Long hours, tight margins, stress-filled services. Yet several times a year since August 2017, Schmaus has escaped all that, heading into the Germany camp to feed the national team’s players.
Bayern Munich striker Thomas Muller is, according to Schmaus, the biggest foodie in the national-team squad. The 33-year-old has already started to look towards his post-playing career and has invested in Greenforce, a food-tech company which sells products made with pea protein, a meat substitute.
“Some players try and invite me for dinner,” Schmaus says. “Usually it’s some kind of pasta, but I can’t usually accept it because of time. I don’t know how good it’ll be, but I’m really not sure if they’re good chefs.”
Qatar will be Schmaus’ third major tournament with Germany so he has to constantly reinvent his menu to keep things fresh, aware that fine dining does not necessarily lead to peak performance in professional sports.
“There’s too much fat,” he exclaims, when asked if he ever dusts off any Michelin Star-winning recipes. “Bavarian food is not good for performance.”
“Well…” he considers after a short pause, “maybe sauerkraut is OK.”
He feels that Italian and Japanese teams are at a natural advantage nutritionally — their traditional diet is already suitable for elite athletes.
“The Italian diet is low-fat, and though there’s a lot of carbs with the pasta, it’s actually quite healthy and good for athletes. In Japan, sushi is one of the best regenerational foods.”
Italy have failed to qualify for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, but won the European Championship in between. Japan surprisingly beat Germany 2-1 in the two nations’ opening group game in Qatar on Wednesday. Make of that what you will.
Earlier this year, Schmaus took part in a pilot study conducted by the Institute of Nutritional Medicine in the German city of Lubeck, German fourth-division club SV Babelsberg 03 and food manufacturer Oatly. He was asked to investigate the effects of a plant-based diet on the performance of professional footballers.
The study asked whether adopting a plant-based diet for eight weeks would affect athletic performance. It found no immediate drawbacks — and the emissions from participants’ nutritional footprint were cut by about 30 per cent.
In Qatar, Schmaus has to produce a buffet for every meal without importing a single ingredient, and there will be lots of plant-based options. He explains the rationale is not so much that meat is bad for peak performance but that removing it increases the consumption of vegetables, legumes (such as beans and peas) and fruit.
“It’s better for restoration,” he says. “Think about if you drink alcohol at night, or have a doner kebab before bed. It’s really bad for your sleep, and your recovery.
“If you go with plant-based, particularly for dinner, your body doesn’t have so much to work on, to digest. You recover better, and perform better the next day.”
Attitudes towards the benefits of a vegan diet are not unequivocal.
In March 2020, James McNicholas wrote about the issue for The Athletic after a string of injuries to Arsenal full-back Hector Bellerin, who had eaten a solely plant-based diet since 2016.
Though benefits can include intake of more high-quality carbohydrates and better digestion through added fibre, some drawbacks have been raised. Players need to be careful to eat enough protein and, especially, iron. Without these, they can suffer fatigue and run a corresponding higher risk of injury.
Schmaus acknowledges that a fully vegan player would have to supplement their diet — particularly for Vitamin B12 and folic acid.
For this reason, he thinks it is important to treat players individually, making them aware of the information, but allowing them to make the choices.
“For some of them it works really well, because they’re avoiding injuries, or it makes them feel better, so they stick with plant-based nutrition,” he says. “For others, it’s good for them to maybe just eat meat and fish twice a week.
“You can’t get 26 players to just eat vegan — that’s impossible. Some of them will only ever eat the same thing before a match — it’s how they were raised.
“But if they’re having fun with plant-based eating, we (the process) start running. If you start with small steps, it can be a way to make football more sustainable. You need to bring the players with you, then they can be role models for the whole industry, for sport in general.”
In recent years, Schmaus has noticed the results of his encouragement when stocking his larder.
“I need so much more alternative milk, cashew yoghurt, it has increased so much in the last few years,” he says. “Players are seeing it is making a difference. They’re role models for children, for younger players — and on the other hand, they feel better if they are not eating meat all the time.”
Another thing Schmaus has to account for is the cultural diversity in Germany’s squad, which includes Bavarians like him, children of Turkish immigrants and players from West African backgrounds. He often tries to cook in a fusion style, accounting for the range of tastes.
“One of my signature dishes uses a traditional German spicy sausage with beef or lamb,” he explains. “But I do a pasta with it and add ingredients like cumin and garlic — I want to incorporate all the different styles.”
He believes food is good for the soul and while the squad are in Qatar, thousands of miles from Germany, a taste of home can inspire performance. Mind you, he will not take requests.
“I always try to include some regional stuff on the menu, things which remind players of their mothers’ food. Those are their favourite meals. They aren’t unhealthy as such, but if there is a decent gap between matches, then I can usually do this,” Schmaus says.
“One of these, from Swabia in south west Germany, is Maultaschen — a kind of (stuffed) pasta with mincemeat in it. You boil it, then serve with a beef consommé (broth). It’s a lot of work, but the players love it.
“You can also do a vegan option, which I do with spinach, and serve in a vegetable stock.
“When you’re together a long time, you need soul food like this.”
Every World Cup question you’ve been too afraid to ask
(Top photo: Marius Becker/picture alliance via Getty Images)