It’s the first day after Labor Day Weekend, which means one thing: NFL football is about to begin! Before Wednesday night starts the season off with the defending Super Bowl Champs, the New York Giants, facing off against the Dallas Cowboys, we thought we’d kick off our own series, simply titled Football and Food. For the next few weeks — hell, probably through the whole season — we’ll be featuring lots of gridiron talk, plus an avalanche of tailgating recipes, to get you through to Super Bowl XLVII. First, we check in with the team expected to take the NFC West, the San Francisco 49ers.
Meet San Francisco 49ers team chef Chad McWilliams and head of logistics Steve Risser. McWilliams, whose previous gig was working as the chef at eBay, has been with the team since 2009, after they opened up the café at their training camp in Santa Clara. It’s right next door to San Francisco’s brand new stadium, slated to open in 2014. Steve Risser has been with the 49ers for 11 seasons, starting out as an intern. The two Bay Area natives dish on one player’s all-beef diet, serving filet mignon for pregame meals and a punter who never stops eating. Plus, their on-the-road regime, which involves making regional specialties. Looks like Brats and lots of cheddar will be on the menu when the 49ers season kicks off in Wisconsin against the Green Bay Packers.
Growing up, were either of you 49ers fans?
Steve Risser: I grew up a die-hard 49ers fan.
Chad, how is cooking for the 49ers different from your previous cooking gigs?
Chad McWilliams: A lot more specialized diets and really specific needs. A lot of people think it’s mass quantities of food because it’s a football team, but it’s not really like that.
On a typical day, how much food are you cooking for the players and coaches?
CM: It varies on the time of season. Right now our menu, the way Steve and I designed it, we’ll do about 120 pounds of chicken per service. That’s just chicken. And steak we’ll do 60 pounds per service. And fish is close to 95 to 100 pounds per service. That’s for players, coaches and staff.
How does this differ from the regular season?
CM: Each meal service total: for the players 50 pounds of chicken, 60 fish.
Do you face any challenges from the players, like diet restrictions or special requests?
CM: We put so much out – 3 proteins, there’s 4 starches, with two of them whole grain, plus vegetables, salad bar, deli bar and a grill station. There is so much variety. As long as we have something for everyone, we keep the masses happy.
Diet aside, have any players asked for anything bizarre?
CM: No current player.
SR: How’s Brian Jennings?
CM: Oh, Brian Jennings loves his beef.
SR: [Brian Jennings] will only eat beef. He does not touch chicken. He does not touch fish. He’s very strict with his starches.
What’s with the starches?
SR: Has to be whole grain. Organic, whole grain, vegetables and beef. That’s all he does.
CM: The only thing he’ll eat outside of that is Greek yogurt.
What’s his reason for eating only beef?
CM: He explained it to me before but it would take a whole day to tell you.
SR: Let’s just say he seeks out a lot of other — I wouldn’t call them doctors, but he gets advice from all different types of people. If you would have asked us what Brian Jennings ate six years ago, it would have been the complete opposite. He talks to different physicians and learns new things about certain ingredients or items and he just changes his way, but he’s been on this all-beef deal for the last two to three years.
A lot of players stay away from red meat during training camp, so what kind of beef is he eating?
CM: Burger patties medium-rare or he’ll do a grilled ribeye steak, a New York steak. He’s always, “I want it rare and nice and juicy in the middle.”
Does he have any pregame ritual meals?
SR: He’ll always do a filet mignon on a pregame meal. Filet mignon and brown rice and vegetables.
You can’t go wrong with a filet.
SR: I do it to on pregame meals. Filet mignon is the most popular item on the pregame meal.
What do you do for post-game?
SR: For post-game, we mix it up. Depending on what city we go to, we like to do city flare. So if it’s New Orleans, we like to do po’ boys or jambalaya. Or if we’re going to play Houston or Dallas or Kansas City, we tend to go with barbecue. So we like to mirror what’s popular in the city we’re visiting.
For home games, there’s a local company, Kinders Barbecue, we utilize for all of our post-game food after home games. They bring out their big smoker and will do anything from ribs to chicken to sausage to brisket, and we open that up to not only the players and coaches, but their family and friends. So it’s our chance to tailgate, because we don’t do it beforehand. It’s a chance for the friends and family to hang out. If we lose, the attendance is down a lot. Luckily, it wasn’t a big issue for us last season.
Doesn’t seem like losing will be an issue this season either.
SR: Knock on wood.
Are there any guys on the team that would make for a competitive eater?
SR: I think we’re thinking of the same person – Andy Lee.
CM: Andy Lee all the way!
SR: Now Andy Lee is our punter. He’s probably the skinniest guy on the team but he does not stop eating. I’d put him up, if we would have to do a competitive eating contest.
Have you witnessed any amazing feats?
CM: Today he had two specials and a big grilled sandwich and he ate two plus the buffet. He came back saying it was so good I have to have another one.
SR: And he puts ketchup on everything. Ketchup and pickles. No matter what it is. It’s actually pretty disgusting to sit down and eat next to him. He’s a very nice guy, but he’s an eating machine.
So many athletes tell us they use food as fuel as opposed to eating what tastes good. As a chef, do you try to challenge the players at all?
CM: Working with our nutritionist and strength coach, he’ll come up with a few things he wants for the guys and then I’ll work to make it taste good. We do post-workout smoothies with them and he brought me the stuff he wanted me to put it in there – berries and vanilla and a bunch of stuff. Initially I said, woah man! We need to rethink this. So I made it to a cherry-peach that goes well with vanilla. The mixed berries didn’t. He wants us to steer clear of tropical fruits because they’re too high in sugar. It’s one of the fun things about being the chef is being creative with stuff you don’t normally see. It’s not just a potato. We use red quinoa and farro and grains — a whole variety of whole grains going through these guys.
SR: One thing to add is we’re feeding the masses, so you can’t be doing Chinese food this day and Mexican food this day. You have to make sure there’s stuff on the menu for everybody. Obviously the chicken and fish and your beef are most popular, and these guys are eating three to four meals a day in the same facility, so chef does a fantastic job about putting a mango salsa over the fish this day. He can do the same thing everyday but put a twist on it for different taste and flavor. It’s very difficult to really do crazy stuff when you’re feeding 90-plus players during training camp.
Do you do all local ingredients and products, sustainability?
CM: That’s one of the biggest things at Bon Appetit Management. Being a chef for them, we have a farm-to-fork program and they require chefs to have a certain percentage of things that are bought locally. So our farm to fork program is 150 miles from our café. A quarter of everything I purchase is grown or produced [just] 150 miles away. I am kind of lucky that I am in the heart of Silicon Valley and 50 miles south is Hollister, where there’s plenty of tomatoes and lettuce; a little further south there’s plenty of egg farms. If you go west to Modesto, you have beef and pork and chicken. So it’s a very big part of what I like to do in the café. We also compost. We work closely with the team’s facility.
Can you tell the different between a rookie’s plate and a veteran’s plate?
SR: The first offseason conditioning program starting with our mini camps, you can definitely tell. The vets will load up on salads and vegetables and lean meats and the rookies get excited; they see all the food and pile it on. For example, like a Justin Smith, every single day I see him do a nice big salad. He doesn’t go crazy with the other items, but nice and hearty. He gets it. He doesn’t fill up. He has balance. The rookies, I always see their eyes light up, “Whoa, fried catfish,” and they load up even for the hotel room that night.
When the players leave camp to eat, do any of them deviate from their diet?
SR: They miss their In-N-Out Burger and pizza.
CM: [Pizza] is the one thing we don’t serve.
SR: We just don’t have the capability of pumping out a ton of pizza.
CM: You need a dough mixer to make enough for all of them. I can probably make 4 of them, but it’s not New York pizza.
Any foodies on the team?
SR: Jim Tomsula — he’s our defensive line coach and was interim head coach after Mike Singletary was fired. He’s one of the most beloved guys in the building. He’s come up with the California plate — grilled chicken with tomatoes, avocado, cheese and no bun. That seems to be a trend that’s catching on in the café.
CM: He lost 30 pounds on it!
Chef Chad, if there’s one meal you can create for the team, diet restrictions aside, what would it be?
CM: We did it last year for the playoffs: filets and lobster tails. It was more of a holiday event that just happened to be toward the end of December. Coach wanted to do something nice so we made really good filet mignons.
SR: It was good!
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