Sushi with Schumacher: Ex-F1 chef on catering for sport’s big names

Dave Freeman pours champagne over Jenson Button
Former F1 chef Dave Freeman pours champagne over Jenson Button following his World Championship win in 2009

Any chef will tell you it is an extremely stressful job, so imagine catering for some of the biggest names in sport and taking your kitchen to a different country nearly every week.

For about 20 years, that was the life of Dave Freeman, an ex-Formula 1 chef who now owns a golf course in Norfolk.

During his distinguished career, he looked after the culinary needs of some of the world’s top drivers, working for Tyrrell, Jordan, BAR, Force India, Brawn, McLaren, Red Bull and Toro Rosso.

Dave, 59, served for 13 years in the Army – good training, he says, “because you’ve got to think on your feet”.

But promotion took him away from his job as a general chef, and by around 1997 he was no longer enjoying Army life.

“My brother’s friend catered for the Williams-Renault factory so he needed chefs to come and help,” he remembers.

Dave Freeman with Jenson Button golf course hole
Dave Freeman is now dealing with drivers of a different kind as a golf course owner

That catering company ended up working with Honda and saw Dave plying his trade in Japan for a year.

“It was a lot of fun and the Japanese people were fabulous to work with,” says Dave, who was born in Harlow, Essex, but grew up in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset.

“There’s a great little story. We were leaving the Suzuka Grand Prix. In those days, we’d give away our team kit and one of the mechanics threw his jacket out of the window and this fan was so happy and put this jacket on.

“As we were edging out of the circuit, this guy ran round the front and was stopping the bus, jumping and screaming, and he wouldn’t move.

“Eventually the bus driver opened up the bus and in he came and gave the mechanic his Rolex watch which had been left in his jacket pocket. I’m not so sure that would happen in other countries.”

Like most aspects of the sport, the hospitality part of F1 has come on leaps and bounds since Dave started in the late 1990s.

“We’ve gone from cooking in the garage to £20m motorhomes,” he says.

“When I first started… you’d take a little cooker, some cutlery, you’d have to hire chairs, tables and everything… it was like camping, really.

“Brake dust always looks like pepper and the smell of the brakes was like you were burning stuff.”

Dave remembers an actual fire in Brazil, but F1 catering was changing.

“It became a lot more corporate: more professional-looking, proper counters, bannering and proper equipment.”

Rubens Barrichello gives thumbs-up
Rubens Barrichello was a fan of Dave’s Japanese food

Having spent time in Japan, Dave’s speciality of sushi made him popular with some of the grid’s biggest names.

“A lot of them quite liked Japanese food: Juan Pablo Montoya – he had California rolls – Jenson [Button], Rubens [Barrichello]. I remember doing it for seven drivers and you’re basically taking a little bit of a risk on the liability side.

“Imagine the headline: ‘Honda chef poisons front five on the grid’.”

One driver in particular took a liking to Dave and his sushi: seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher.

“Even though he was nothing to do with Honda, he liked Japanese food, so his physio, Balbir Singh, used to come down and get him a plate of sushi after qualifying, and this used to happen everywhere,” he remembers.

“I bought this really nice black Japanese plate just for Michael to make it extra special. This one time, unfortunately when his mother died, we were in San Marino.

“He had the food on the Saturday and he flew back to be with her, and then he came back the next day and won the race.

“I never got my plate back, so the following race I said to Balbir, ‘Where’s my plate?’

“He said, ‘Oh, Michael took it on the plane – he’s got it in his house now’ and I said jokingly ‘Oh, that’s nice, it cost me a hundred quid!’ Five minutes later, a marketing guy comes running up with a chequebook.

“A while after, I saw Michael in Monaco and I said ‘Where’s my plate, you thief!’ and we had a really good laugh over it.”

Photo of the sushi plate given to Michael Schumacher
Dave’s sushi was a hit with the drivers, particularly Michael Schumacher

Dave has fond memories of Schumacher, who suffered severe head injuries in a skiing accident in December 2013 and has not been seen in public since.

“Michael was really, really great. In Japan, it was the last race, it was the year it was down to Williams against Ferrari and whoever won, won the championship, so it was really tense,” he says.

“Balbir came to the motorhome and said ‘Michael wants a picture’ – this is ‘Michael Schumacher wants a picture’, not the other way around!

“I went into the Ferrari garage dressed in my Williams gear and Michael came over and said, ‘Dave, I just wanted to say thank you very much. I’d like a picture.’ I’ve got it framed, obviously, and got him to sign it ‘To my sushi.'”

Dave Freeman with Michael Schumacher
Dave agreed to a photo with seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher

Cooking was not the only role Dave was tasked with during his time in F1.

With teams operating skeleton crews to keep costs low, he was sometimes be entrusted to hold the pit boards delivering information to the drivers.

“I used to do the pit board with Brawn because they didn’t have anyone to do it. I used to do a couple of sneaky messages and eventually I asked ‘Will you marry me?’ to my wife on the pit board, but Rubens and Jenson didn’t win so I ran over to the pit wall at Red Bull.

“They saw what I was doing and allowed me on their wall. It was in front of two billion people so she was pressured into it!”

Dave Freeman pit-board proposal
Dave proposed using a pit board as Sebastian Vettel won the 2009 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

These days, Dave is no longer misusing pit boards or feeding maki rolls to the fastest drivers in the world.

Last year, along with his wife, Fatna, he bought Middleton Hall Golf Club in Norfolk, and did not miss the opportunity to drop in some F1 references.

“Because of my background, we renamed all the holes after drivers, so we’ve got Alonso, Schumacher, Verstappen, Hill – where we’ve actually got a hill on the course – Fittipaldi. Halfway house is now the Pit-Stop; the first tee is Lights Out.”

Middleton Hall F1 scorecard
A scorecard with a difference at Dave’s Middleton Hall course

One seemingly glaring omission is George Russell, the Mercedes driver, born just four miles away in King’s Lynn. But there is a good reason, according to Dave: “He’s not a world champion yet!”

So if Russell does need any extra motivation to kick on and overthrow the seemingly unbeatable Max Verstappen, a hole named after him on a golf course in his home county is on the line.

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