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ASHBURN, Va. – Washington Redskins tight end Niles Paul stopped by his locker before a recent practice to drop off a carry-out plate of baked chicken, black-eyed peas and rice. The mini-feast would become dinner later that evening for a player who doesn't cook, one of the many advantages of playing for a NFL team with a full-time, fine-dining chef.
It's quite the change from Paul's previous options.
"Probably Wendy's, and get a Baconator," he said.
Over the last 13 months, the Redskins have changed the diets of many players by converting the basketball and racquetball courts in the Redskins Park basement into a made-to-order, healthy-options eating establishment. There's a chef with a French cuisine background, a sous-chef, five cooks and a full-time nutritionist creating some 350 fresh-from-scratch meals per day — mostly breakfast and lunch — for the players, coaches, support staff and other employees.
"If I was going to take a leap from the fine-dining branch, why not go polar-opposite and try to do clean-eating for a football team and see where it goes," said the head chef, 49-year-old Jon Mathieson, a top name in the D.C. dining community who was hired away by Redskins owner Dan Snyder.
Teams invest more than a hundred million dollars annually in player salaries, yet they often fuel those high-performance bodies with standard fare catered from a local restaurant during the week. That's what the Redskins did until the start of last season, setting out lunches of Mexican, Italian, barbecue or other fare — whatever the catering company had to offer — much of it containing heavy sauces and empty calories.
Of course, the team did win three three Super Bowls while eating McDonald's hamburgers for lunch in 1980s and early 1990s.
"But they were also smoking cigarettes and drinking malt liquor," tight end Logan Paulsen said. "The culture's changed. It's another resource that 20 years ago wasn't really looked into, and now it is. They didn't take care of their bodies the way we do now. There wasn't the necessity for it because no one was doing it."
The kitchen was part of a $30 million building renovation and opened just over a year ago. The Redskins say they are one of a handful of teams that employ a full-time nutritionist, and on-site chefs are even rarer in the league.
"If your diet starts to suffer a little bit, then your play is going to suffer," Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. "You'll get more tired and you're going to sleep worse at night. It all goes hand-in-hand. It's hard to be a physical specimen and have a terrible diet."
Snyder spared no expense in giving Mathieson and nutritionist Rob Skinner every toy a food connoisseur could imagine: two wok stations, cheese melters, a pasta station, an omelet station, a brick pizza oven with the word "Redskins" visible next to the flame, a smoothie bar, industrial-sized pots that can cook a week's worth of meat sauce at a time. Mathieson arrives before 5 a.m. every day, a delivery truck shows up within an hour, and soon the kitchen is running like a well-oiled machine preparing 75 pounds of fish, 75 pounds of some other meat protein and as many as 30 pizzas per day.
Breakfast might include scrambled egg whites, turkey bacon and sausage, apple chicken sausage and an omelet station that runs the vegetable gamut. For lunch, Mathieson comes up with inventive, healthy ways to cook fish, chicken or turkey and occasionally beef. A recovery smoothie is waiting at every player's locker after practice. "Berry" and "tropical" are popular flavors, although Paulsen goes for the more exotic "kale."
Some players buy in more than others. Running back Alfred Morris provided a comical highlight last season by declining comment on coach Mike Shanahan's firing. Why? Because Morris said he had to get to Chick-fil-A before it stopped serving breakfast.
"Dieticians are salesmen," Skinner said. "We're trying to sell good health. We're trying to sell better performance. Do guys still eat fried chicken? Of course, they do. ... I don't whip, but I gently nudge in the right direction. I get all the time, I'll stand here and they'll say, 'Well, which one's better?' And I'll say, 'This one.' They'll say, 'But I don't want that one.' I'll say, 'You didn't ask me what you wanted, you asked me what was better, and this is better.'"
Quarterback Kirk Cousins has been known to text Skinner from a grocery store to ask which product is a healthier choice. Veteran Santana Moss brought in a recipe for garlic crab legs from his native Florida, and Mathieson cooked it as a special meal for the receivers.
The chef's craftiest masterpiece might be his pizza. Knowing it was a treat dish that players couldn't resist, he changed the dough, adding yogurt and milk and whole wheat flour.
"We started with 50-50 to see what they would do, and if they kicked back on it," Mathieson said. "No one said anything. We went 75-25. No one kicked back on it."
It's 100 percent now, and a quick poll of the locker room shows that the pizza is probably second to salmon among the players' favorites from the kitchen.
Skinner consults with the team's doctor about individual players. He advises them how to eat when they're not at the facility, but he obviously can't control whether they follow his advice. An average player eats about twice the protein of a normal person, although a lineman's diet is obviously more caloric than a kicker's.
And then there are the coaches, who live perhaps the unhealthiest lives of all, meeting deep into the night and getting by on little sleep.
"I've talked to them about putting me on a meal plan," Gruden said. "But I go down there and I always look for the most fattening food and eat that. I'm terrible."
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