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An Olympic fete

In France, where chefs are kings, exalted in travel guides and heralded at the restaurants that bear their names, Jean Marchette is proud to call himself simply a traiteur _ caterer.

He has undertaken the job of feeding, oh, 20,000 people a day for 15 days. He is the official caterer to the Olympic Family: that is, the sponsors, Olympic officials, politicians, Very Important Spectators, reporters, security workers and 8,000 volunteers.

In short, everyone who makes these Winter Games go, except for the athletes, all expecting to eat as if they are in, well, in France.

"A challenge," he said. "A big challenge."

"Historically in France," he said through an interpreter, "the three-star and the two-star chefs don't speak. One celebrates these chefs. I don't think they have ever worked together unified as this. Usually, they are very independent. I have an external challenge to get the food to the people and an internal challenge to keep the chefs happy."

Mr. Marchette runs Raynier & Marchette in Paris, a sophisticated operation that tries to go beyond mass-produced food. Yes, even in France, mass-produced food can be pedestrian.

Now, he is directing 18 head chefs. While none is a two- or three-star chef, all have reputations and recipes to guard. And Marchette has kept the peace by spreading them out, one at each of the 18 sites where the Games are being played.

They are subverting their natural inclination to prepare the food of their home regions in favor of a somewhat more homogenized cuisine, but with special homage to Savoy, the home of the Winter Games. And once in a while, they sneak in some of their own favorites.

So from Savoy come subtly spiced poached quenelles of veal. There is raclette, the region's ubiquitous cheese fondue that is poured over whatever is available: potatoes, vegetables, bread, sausage.

Smoked ham is the most famous meat of the region, where it is an honorable dish.

"But we have chefs from Strasbourg, Avignon, Paris and Lyons," said Philippe d'Aramon, the assistant director of this huge catering operation. "When we discussed just how we would make a menu, the chefs suggested that they use some of their own specialties."

In the Olympics the host tries to set a theme. The force behind the Alpine games is Jean-Claude Killy, a French hero since he captured three gold medals in skiing at the 1968 Games in nearby Grenoble.

Though born in Paris, he has lived in these mountains most of his life.

So these games are about the mountains and the people who live here, the Savoyards. It is about their cuisine and wine as well. This means more juggling for Marchette.

"We use mostly the produce of Savoy," he said, adding with a Gallic sigh, "but we also have to reflect France."

So he uses local cheeses _ for example, Beaufort, semisoft, pleasant and fruity. And to reflect traditions from other regions he cooks up beef Bourguignon, choucroute from Alsace, hot sausage and six kinds of potato dishes from Lyons.

His chefs do not have to concern themselves with feeding the athletes. The Olympians' training-table food is prepared by subcontractors working for the 65 countries competing here.

Preparing the food is just the beginning of a logistical nightmare for Marchette and his staff. The Games are spread over 650 square miles of mountains and valleys. When the old farmer told the lost traveler, "You can't get there from here," he was talking about this place.

Imagine hairpin turns so sharp that the bus driver has to stand up so that he can peek around the corner. Then imagine sending out 25 trucks each morning at 4 a.m. to traverse the roads from Chambery, the capital of Savoy, about 30 miles west of Albertville.

There, 60 workers prepare most of the food, and in 15 days they will use 25 tons of meat, including chicken and veal, and 35 tons of vegetables. In all, 60,000 bottles of wine will be consumed, along with 50 tons of bread.