Gretchen McKay

Fueling a football team, the Steelers way

Fans line up for hours to see their favorite players at the Steelers training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe. Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette

During the Steelers’ summer training camp, the Community Center Dining Hall at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe is the stuff big eaters dream of.

Indecisive souls feeling ravenously hungry could go crazy mulling its many menu choices, which features a cornucopia of lean meats and fish, garden-fresh vegetables, orb after orb of plump seasonal fruit. There also are five Oster blenders waiting to whirl fruit, peanut butter and protein power into liquid meals at a DIY smoothie bar. On the opposite corner of the room, a wood-burning pizza oven pumps out a cheesy 16-inch pie every 10 minutes. The dough is made fresh each morning in the kitchen, and most days there are at least three varieties to choose from.

There’s even a cookie table that would bring a Pittsburgh bride to tears with its tempting display. Last week, it included platters of peanut blossoms, Oreo cookies, chocolate-peanut butter gobs, gingersnaps and chocolate-chip cookies the size of small saucers.

Not that the players attending the 52nd annual camp, which continues through Aug. 18, indulge in those guilty pleasures.

Food is fuel, after all, and a football player’s body is his temple. As such, it’s all about clean eating for today’s training camp attendees, who are better educated than ever before about the cause and effect of diet and nutrition.

So the cookies, notes executive chef Daniel Keeley, who oversees the preparation and serving of meals in the college dining hall operated by Parkhurst Dining Services, are really there for the coaches and ball boys.

A daily menu outside the cafeteria at Steelers training camp in Latrobe.

“The players walk over and say, ‘Ooh,’ and then walk away,”  he says.

That said, a certain long-time veteran was spied licking a vanilla ice cream cone after lunch as he sped away from the cafeteria on the back of a golf cart.

A few years ago, Parkhurst added signs on the buffet tables that spell out the number of carbs, fat, protein and calories included in each dish. Players not only took note but also took it to heart.

“It’s extremely important to put the right fuel in your body,” says veteran linebacker Arthur Moats as he waited outside the locker room for a golf cart to ferry him to lunch. “What you put in is going to dictate what you get out over there,” pointing his thumb toward the practice field.

Mr. Moats, 29, sticks to what he calls the “healthy stuff” — salads, fruits and broiled or baked fish. “And I’m big on hydration,” he says. “You gotta have your waters and Gatorades, especially this time of year when you’re sweating so much and getting banged every day.”

On a day when it is a sweltering 92 degrees on the Westmoreland County campus, he also quaffs Pedialyte to replenish electrolytes and avoid dehydration.

Alejandro Villanueva adheres to a similar diet. “I hate to be this boring, but I eat a lot of fruit, carbs, chocolate milk for fast protein … and a lot of water.” That translates to at least four glasses at each meal. He also piles his plate high with his favorite vegetable — raw spinach. Lunch might include a couple of grilled chicken breasts; dinner is usually some type of fish, plus more chocolate milk. Also, he has bagels as a snack for quick energy.

At 6 feet 9 inches and 320 pounds, the 28-year-old offensive tackle and former Army Ranger can certainly pack it away. While diets and conditioning goals vary among players — some are trying to gain weight and strength after the off-season while others are attempting to lose it to keep light on their feet — NFL players typically consume between 4,000 to 10,000+ calories per day, or about twice as many  (and sometimes more) as the average sedentary adult’s requirement of 1,800 to 2,400 daily calories. For breakfast, for example, Mr. Villanueva eats not just fruit and oatmeal but also a three-egg omelet.

“If I feel hungry, I eat,” he says.

Players, especially the rookies, get guidance from team nutritionist Matt Darnell. But even with that expert advice, fueling their bodies properly can be just as much of a task as memorizing the playbook.

“You have to think about everything that goes into your body because at the end of the day, my body is what helps me perform,” Mr. Moats says. “So I have to treat it with extreme care.”

Linebacker L.J. Fort typically starts the day with an omelet stuffed with sausage, ham, peppers and mushrooms. A sushi lover, he’s especially fond of the salmon and other broiled fishes. But sometimes the best eat also is the simplest.

He gets his carbs up before practice with every elementary school kid’s favorite comfort food: the humble PB&J.

“I just want healthful foods,” he says.

Mr. Villaneuva says it gets a little harder to maintain weight as the season unfolds, which is why he considers himself lucky that his wife,  Madelyn, is such a great cook. Spaghetti carbonara is one of her specialties, and he also eats a lot of red sauce and tuna steak, along with the occasional Fat Heads IPA if he’s out with friends. “It’s pretty balanced,” he says.

The same could be said of the training camp menu as a whole, which Mr. Keeley and executive sous chef Brian Cable start planning in May, soon after graduation. Even though they’re responsible for three meals a day plus snacks, they take great care to keep it as interesting as it is nutritious by offering a rotating menu. For instance, potatoes are always a given but sometimes they’re sweet and shredded, other times they’re Idaho and diced. That way, players don’t get bored over the three weeks of camp.

The chefs typically build their menu off what’s proved popular at the Steelers’ practice facility on the South Side. But it’s never completely set in stone. Offerings are continually tweaked based on players’ likes and specials requests.

Some food items haven’t changed much in the 10 years Mr. Keeley has cooked for the players, such as the burger bar at lunch (with every imaginable topping and a choice of four proteins) and the massive salad bar that anchors the room. But the entrees have generally gotten more “clean.” with a focus on whole foods and quality ingredients. Today’s camp includes lots of whole grains and deep-dark greens such as kale and chard, and the kitchen no longer cooks food in butter. “If we use any fat, it’s extra-virgin olive oil in minimal amounts,” Mr. Keeley said.

Fried food also is a thing of the past, and meat choices now include bison and turkey along with beef and chicken. Fish is broiled, or ground into patties. There’s also a push to use as many local and organic products as possible from producers such as Rivendale Farms in Robinson, which provides maple syrup and honey to sweeten oatmeal and yogurt.

Mr. Keeley estimates the Steelers will go through 40 cases of 24-count Buffalo burgers alone during camp. And that’s just for lunch. Every night for dinner, the kitchen staff cooks some 150 pounds of beef tenderloin or hanger or flank steaks for the team on giant charcoal grills outside the cafeteria.

“They don’t go hungry,” Mr. Cable says.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Pasta Parmesan With Tomatoes

PG tested

This is quick, easy, totally delicious and has 287 calories per 4-ounce serving. 

1 pound penne

1/4 cup margarine or butter

1 garlic clove, minced

1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup grated Parmesan, plus more for serving

Chopped fresh basil for serving, optional

Red pepper flakes for serving, optional

Cook pasta in 4-quart saucepan according to package directions. Drain, and return to large bowl.

Melt margarine or butter in 10-inch skillet over medium heat until sizzling. Add garlic and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes burst and release their juices to form a sauce, 6 to 8 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Toss pasta with tomato sauce and Parmesan. Spoon into serving dish. Sprinkle with additional Parmesan cheese, if desired, and garnish with basil and a pinch of red pepper flakes.

Serves 4.

— Executive chef Daniel Keeley, Saint Vincent College


Training meals: A look inside the Steelers’ training kitchen

Lunch plates portioned to three different appetites. Gretchen McKay

 

They look invincible. Yet beneath those steely, confident exteriors, the Pittsburgh Steelers struggle just like the rest of us schlubs — at least when it comes to their diets.

The underweight players are attempting to pack on a few extra pounds. The heavier ones are working on losing some. And those who fit into their black and gold uniforms just right are doing their best to maintain.

Not an easy proposition when everyone’s eating three meals a day of the same food, practice leaves you starving and everything on the all-you-can-eat buffet tables looks soooo delicious.

Actually, it got a whole lot easier for players this year at the Steelers’ 47th annual summer training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, which wraps up its three-week run tomorrow with an open practice from 3 to 5 p.m.

Those who cook for the team before the season commences initiated a new program that makes meal portioning as easy as filling Heinz Field with fans on a Sunday afternoon.

Rather than guess how a plate of kielbasa and sauteed veggies stacks up nutritionally to one that holds homemade pierogies or a piece of grilled fish — or in the case of those with the biggest appetites or caloric requirements, all of the above — a sign at the head of the buffet line spells it out for them in black and white: number of calories per serving, plus total grams of fat, protein and carbohydrates. But what really drives the point home is a side-by-side comparison of actual plates.

It’s one thing to mentally measure up that perfect portion, but it’s another thing entirely to see it right there in front of you, down to the exact tablespoon of steamed rice or ounce of grilled turkey. Do you want to gain, maintain or wane? Simply choose the serving suggestions that correspond.

“It’s a reference for them,” said general manager Reggie Esmi, who with executive chef Rick Laskie oversees the preparation and serving of meals in the college dining hall, which is operated by Parkhurst Dining Services. “That way, they know the number of carbs, fat, protein and calories before they build their plates.”

Also new this year is an emphasis on performance drinks. They’re made with fresh fruits such as pomegranate or kiwi and given a boost with flax seed.

Because they’re so much bigger than your average Joe, NFL players often are thought of as meat-and-potatoes kind of guys. What they really like is their vegetables — along with whole grains such as quinoa and wheat berries. That’s because like most professional athletes, they have become much more conscious in recent years of the connection between healthy eating and performance. In order to maintain the high energy levels for pre-season training and games, they fuel their bodies with all the healthful, nutrient-rich food they can get.

There’s still a fair amount of pasta on the daily menu, said Chef Laskie, who has been cooking for the team for 10 years. There also are higher-fat dishes such as ribs and hot wings (a favorite late-night snack). But not as much as you might think.

Today, fish — loaded with omega 3 fatty acids, which helps bodies recover after strenuous exercise — is a big crowd pleaser, along with lean grilled meats, fresh fruits and a wide array of vegetables, cooked and otherwise. Most meals include a trip to the massive salad bar in the middle of the dining room, where at least three greens vie for attention along with eight vegetables and array of homemade dressings and bacon bits.

One of the most popular menu items, says Chef Laskie, who graduated from Westmoreland County Community College’s culinary program, is the turkey burger. Served with a zesty Asian-style slaw, it’s made from a mixture of ground, brined turkey breast and chicken thigh, and cooked on a charcoal grill right outside the dining room. It’s not unusual for the team and their guests to go through more than 1,000 a week.

“I can’t eat a lot of stuff in the summer, but I eat the turkey burgers every day,” said veteran backup quarterback Byron Leftwich.

The Steelers love their Thai turkey burgers at training camp, served with a crunchy Asian slaw. Gretchen McKay

Another team favorite is the wood-fired pizza oven at the opposite end of the dining room. Most days it cooks up a choice of at least four pizzas and cheesy bread, all crafted from dough made fresh each day in the kitchen. There’s also a deli station with made-to-order sandwiches and paninis, a grill station featuring everything from bison to chicken, and a “Park Side” station with hot food items such as mashed potatoes and spicy ethnic dishes. Soup comes from house-made stocks.

“It’s a lot better than previous years,” said veteran starting linebacker Larry Foote. “Different stuff. They have this black-eyed pea curry that’s really good.”

In addition, four bakers crank out a tempting display of desserts, though players as a rule aren’t too big on sweets. On a recent Tuesday, selections included a flaky fruit tart brimming with fresh berries, pumpkin cake, oatmeal raisin cookies and for the players’ kids, Ho Hos Cupcakes. To help replace nutrients sweated out during practice, the kitchen employees, which this year included 50 seasonal workers in addition to the regular staff of 75, also served up glass after glass of orange, apple and other juices — some 530 gallons over the course of the four-week camp, or nearly 8,500 8-ounce servings.

Breakfast at training camp entails nearly as many choices. In addition to an omelet station where players can choose from more than a dozen kinds of fillings, there’s homemade oatmeal, cereals and a variety of baked goods. Smoothies made by whirling together fresh fruits and yogurt get a nutritional push with protein powder.

Because the menu needs to be approved in advance by team nutritionist Leslie Bonci and other staff, Chef Laskie and Mr. Esmi start planning early in May. By July 15, everything is confirmed, though not set completely in stone: Menu offerings are continually tweaked based on players’ likes and specials requests. To keep things exciting for players (and themselves), the culinary staff also cooks up a “surprise” every two or three days. Last week, for example, the team enjoyed a Brazilian barbecue of rubbed beef sirloin and brined turkey breast kebabs. Another night it was sushi.

“This is the players home for four weeks, and we want to do our part to make sure they’re happy,” said Chef Laskie.

Besides, he added, hospitality is part of the St. Vincent tradition. Which is why the culinary team also is responsible for preparing the concessions that feed the 5,000 to 10,000 fans who visit camp on any given day: hot dogs, pretzels, nachos.

Given all their workouts, it’s not unheard of for an NFL player to consume 5,000 calories or more each day during training camp. Multiply that by 90, plus what the 15 coaches, other staff and invited guests end up eating, and the end result is a grocery list that rivals that of a big restaurant. This year’s food order included 1,600 pounds each of chicken and beef, along with 1,100 pounds of fish. By the time camp concludes tomorrow, players also will have eaten their way through 1,200 pounds of cheese, 1,500 pounds of fresh seasonal veggies — a majority of it sourced locally — and two tons of fresh fruit. That’s 120 pounds of bananas, peaches, oranges and apples each day.

The Steelers’ training table includes healthy grains, such as this wheat berry salad. Gretchen McKay

Parkhurst continues the program at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex on the South Side once the season gets underway.

Feeding the Steelers during the annual pilgrimage to St. Vincent’s requires a herculean effort, with the morning crew arriving at 4 a.m. and the night crew working well past midnight. But no one’s complaining. Not even when there’s barely a second to catch your breath, let alone take a coffee break.

“When you enjoy what you do,” explained Mr. Esmi, who’s been doing it at St. Vincent’s for more than three decades, “you never go ‘Whew.'”


 

Black & Gold Thai Turkey Burgers with Asian Slaw

PG tested

Hamburgers are so passe, at least when they’re made with beef. These tasty, low-fat poultry burgers are one of the Steelers’ favorite lunch foods at training camp, says Executive Chef Rick Laskie. Made with turkey breast that’s brined, roasted and ground on site (for his brine recipe, see below), they’re charcoal-grilled right outside the dining room.

Chef Laskie wasn’t too eager to share his “secret recipe,” so whether or not the burgers are an exact replica of what the team chows down on after practice is anyone’s guess. But they’re close enough — and absolutely terrific.

Add the soy sauce a little at a time — depending on how finely ground the meat is, the mixture can quickly get soupy and thus difficult to grill.

  • 1 pound boneless, skinless turkey breast
  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • Course ground black pepper to taste
  • 6 green onions, minced
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
  • Asian Slaw (recipe below)

Combine turkey breast, chicken thighs and coarse black pepper and process through grinder. (If you don’t have a grinder, get your butcher to do it for you. In a pinch, you also could purchase already-ground meat, but understand that it may contain skin.)

In a large mixing bowl, combine ground meat with green onions, cilantro, soy sauce and ginger. Shape mixture into 5-ounce patties.

Charcoal-grill burgers to 165 degrees to cook through. Serve burgers on wheat kaiser rolls with Asian Slaw.

Makes 6 burgers.

— Executive Chef Rick Laskie, Saint Vincent College


 

Asian Slaw

PG tested

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
  • 2 cups thinly sliced fresh spinach
  • 2 cups thinly sliced green cabbage
  • 3 thinly sliced green onions
  • 1/2 thinly sliced bell pepper
  • 2/3 cup chopped dry roasted peanuts (optional)
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil or mint

For dressing, whisk together oil, garlic, soy sauce and lime juice. In a separate bowl, combine spinach, cabbage, onions, pepper, peanuts and basil or mint. Drizzle slaw with dressing, and toss well.

Serve with Thai Turkey Burgers.

— Executive Chef Rick Laskie, Saint Vincent College


 

Apple Cider Turkey Brine

  • 1 gallon water
  • 1 cup kosher salt
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup apple cider
  • 1 tablespoon black pepper

Mix ingredients in a large, clean bucket or bowl. Place turkey breast-side down in another bucket, and pour brine over. Cover with plastic wrap. Brine turkey 20 to 24 hours. Rinse well before roasting.

— Executive Chef Rick Laskie, Saint Vincent College


 

Training Camp Wheat berry Salad

PG tested

Wheat berries (whole, unprocessed wheat kernels) look sort of like brown rice and are just as easy to cook. Chewy and nutty, they’re incredibly nutritious and are hearty enough to stand up to even the boldest dressing.

I used spelt berries from Clarion River Organics (www.clarionriverorganics.com, $2.50 per pound) but you can find wheat berries in most specialty grocery stores.

  • 1 cup rinsed, cleaned wheat berries
  • 1 cup celery sliced on the bias
  • 1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
  • 1/2 cup diced yellow bell pepper
  • 1 cup diced red onion
  • 2 tablespoons chopped garlic
  • 1/2 cup chopped parsley
  • Cracked black pepper and kosher salt to taste
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup cider vinegar
  • Fresh sliced tomatoes for garnish

Rinse berries with cold water, submerging to remove soil particles; drain. Simmer wheat berries in lightly salted water for 25 to 30 minute, or until they are chewy but not crunchy. Drain and rinse berries under cold water.

Toss wheat berries with celery, peppers, onion, garlic and parsley. In a separate bowl, combine oil and vinegar and whisk to combine. Drizzle dressing over salad and toss to combine. (I only used about half.) Salt and pepper to taste.

Refrigerate and serve cold with fresh sliced tomatoes.

Makes 4 cups.

— Executive Chef Rick Laskie, Saint Vincent College