This story originally appeared in the September issue of Hail Varsity. Never miss an issue of the magazine with a subscription to Hail Varsity.
It’s been called one of the “busiest restaurants in Lincoln, Nebraska,” but the Huskers’ training table hardly operates like your family’s favorite in town. Wander into the half-serving area, half-dining room tucked in the belly of Memorial Stadium’s West Stadium for any meal and you’ll find most student-athletes—plates or to-go containers in hand—creating their own meals at one of several make-your-own stations.
There’s the Life Skills Kitchen placed toward the back of the dining room, serving eggs at breakfast, rice and noodle bowls for lunch and pasta for dinner. There’s the station for quick breads, where individuals can cook their own pancakes, waffles and French toast. Right next to that station is the one for yogurt parfaits and next to that is the one for trail mixes, dried fruit and nuts. There’s a build-your-own deli sandwich section, an area for smoothies and another for salads. There’s even kombucha on tap.
As a student-athlete makes his or her way through the training table, the options feel endless. What they choose to do with those options is entirely their decision to make. It’s how Dave Ellis—Nebraska’s director of performance nutrition—wants it to be. He could tell you what to eat, but he knows that won’t help long-term.
“Even if you give somebody who’s at a completely lost level the ‘eat this and win diet,’ it only takes about three days before they’re looking at you like, ‘Can we substitute?’” he said. “Of course you can substitute.”
And so, Ellis has introduced the idea of “fueling tactics” to the training table over the last year. It’s a simple way to “make foods coachable,“ as Ellis says, that breaks food down into three areas: immune-benefit (at the top), carbs (in the middle) and proteins (at the bottom). Within those three sections, Ellis and his staff educate student-athletes on what they should be looking for in every meal whether they’re eating at the training table, at home or out at a restaurant with friends. It’s not an easy task to accomplish—“College isn’t the healthiest place in the world,” Ellis said—but that’s what the training table and the fueling tactics education are hoping to combat.
Ellis returned to Nebraska in July of 2018 after nearly 17 years away from the program. He was previously with the Huskers from 1982-2001, starting the Nebraska nutrition department in 1994. He served as its director for eight years before departing to start his own company, Sports Alliance Inc.
When Ellis returned, he quickly saw the changes he wanted to implement at the training table.
He got to work developing the program he wanted, alongside the Nebraska athletic department and Mike Steele, the Huskers’ culinary manager and executive chef.
Ellis knew he couldn’t change things overnight. He needed time to observe and to really understand what Nebraska needed in order to properly fuel its athletes.
That’s where Matt Farniok comes in.
Junior offensive lineman Boe Wilson remembers the day the suggestion was made. It was Labor Day 2018. Farniok, another junior offensive lineman, had decided on some eggs for breakfast. By the time he reached the training table that fateful morning, the eggs weren’t what he was looking for. They were dry and a little hard.
“He asked Ellis if we could make our own eggs,” Wilson recalled.
Both Farniok and Wilson like to cook. Give them a pan and a place, they figured they could make their own eggs.
“Hang on, man,” Ellis told him.
Ellis remembered having a few induction burners in storage. He put them there 20 years ago, but maybe they were still where he had left them. Sure enough, the burners were sitting in the same spot.
“I pulled them out and said, ‘Cook your own eggs,’” Ellis said.
With that, the Life Skills Kitchen was officially born. It started with just breakfast, allowing the student-athletes to create their own egg dishes. After a successful first semester, lunch was introduced. After another successful semester, dinner made its debut over the summer. The training table only has four burners now—which means there can be some serious lines during rush times—but it hasn’t deterred any of the athletes. In fact, it’s only created more curiosity and started to teach some valuable lessons.
“If we had eight or 12 stations, they’d still be busy because the kids are lined up two-deep to cook, sometimes three-deep,” Ellis said. “It’s just awesome because there are some kids who know what they’re doing and then there are some that are curious and there are some that are mortified. But all the way down that spectrum, kids gradually come over out of curiosity and give it a try.
“It’s really just a hoot because along the way, hopefully, the idea there is that they wouldn’t just be that codependent on the drive-thru on an off day.”
That doesn’t mean there wasn’t some hesitation toward the new setup. Steele wasn’t positive the make-your-own stations would take off, only because a lot of the student-athletes had never cooked on their own before and were pretty shy about giving it a try. That’s especially true for those that didn’t grow up learning how to cook with their families.
“It’s like breaking the ice is what you needed to happen,” Steele said. “But once more people got the hang of it, it really took off and then we developed it from there. Now it’s pretty popular.”
Steele is a vital part of making Ellis’ ideas for the training table a reality. There’s a lot of planning and coordinating that takes place. There are 80 to 90 people dedicated to the training table—a number Ellis is still perfecting— but it takes a lot to make it all come together. There are graduate and undergraduate dietetic students, four full-time dietitians, 17 full-time training table staff members, a “throng of humanity” of students—Ellis’ words—and Steele all working toward a common goal.
All of those people are dedicated to feeding 650 Nebraska athletes from 24 sports seven days a week, three meals a day (plus snacks), 365 days per year. Add in the 366 staff members also able to eat at the training table and they serve over 1,600 meals per day. And so those meetings between Ellis, Steele and everyone else involved are vitally important.
Kelsey Gaul is the Life Skills kitchen supervisor, and her days are spent listening to the athletes as much as anything else. She’ll hear from one athlete about why a certain ingredient is or isn’t available. She’s able to make it happen if it’s something they don’t yet have.
“It’s constantly evolving what we put out and what our athletes want. It’s just a really cool opportunity for them,” Gaul said. “Some of these kids have never really cooked for themselves before they came here. It’s nice to be able to give them life skills that they’re going to use when they don’t have someone cooking for them after they leave college.”
That communication with the athletes and the meetings between all involved allow for change to be made when necessary. It also allows for conversations on how food is sourced, the best way to get the food to the student-athletes and more.
“That is where we have a real advantage at Nebraska,” Ellis said. “Our own kitchen, our own full-timers, the control of our supply chain of food as far as buying ingredients, throng of humanity to prepare it and serve it, and engage the athletes on how to use it correctly.
“Everything we can do from a fueling perspective to gain an edge, we’re doing. I think, ultimately, we set the bar on this. It’s probably Nebraska and Alabama that are really neck and neck right now, but we’ve been doing it better for a long time now.”
Ellis and Steele aren’t finished yet. There are plenty of ideas and plans—some that can be shared, some that cannot—that are literally on the table for the nutrition side of an athlete’s training. One of those ideas, which was introduced only one month ago, is a text to order service for the student-athletes. When life gets busy, Ellis wants to keep the athletes out of the fast food-lines.
Student-athletes with a class conflict can now text a number through the training table’s app between 1:30-5 p.m. daily for a menu. They’ll have the option to select from a few grilled choices, a panini sandwich and other to-go items, and then share what time they’ll be by to get their meal. The selections and timing are sent back to the training table staff on a computer toward the back of the primary serving area.
Like the Life Skills Kitchen, there’s a learning curve to the new app and how it can be used. Ellis and Steele have met with the Student- Athlete Advisory Council to share the news on the update, so they’re hopeful it’ll continue to grow in success. They’ve also introduced to- go containers, which have reminded student-athletes that they can get what they need to go.
“I think what’s really helped is a lot of this grab-and-go stuff and being able to take to-go boxes out,” Steele said. “I expect it to catch on.”
It seems like he and Ellis might be on to something too. A walk through the training table during the lunch rush has student-athletes, to-go boxes in hand, grabbing fruits, sandwiches they’ve just made, snacks and more to take to class, back to their dorm rooms or to wherever they please.
Freshman safety Noa Pola-Gates, for example, was hard at work at the Life Skills Kitchen making a bowl with shrimp, noodles, plenty of vegetables, garlic and honey. He didn’t have anywhere he needed to be, but he was taking his stir fry to go.
“I just want to go back to my dorm and play some video games,” he said with a smile.
That’s exactly what Ellis wants to hear. The training table should be a place for student-athletes to fuel in the way that makes sense for them. He can teach them how to properly eat—and that’s an ongoing process— but knowing they’re making the choice to come to the training table to cook or grab something to go is music to his ears. Showing them that eating healthy is possible keeps the student-athletes away from the fast food drive-thrus.
Ellis has equipped the busiest restaurant in Lincoln, Nebraska, with the ability to be what student-athletes need. Would he like more space? Of course. Are there plans for more updates and changes down the road? There sure are. For now, though, he’s working alongside an impressive staff and listening daily to the student- athletes to understand what they need and how to provide it.
“There’s a vulnerability to it,” Ellis said. “Raise their bar, raise their standards and make this a habit, and ultimately it’ll serve them their whole life.”
Erin is the Deputy Editor and Digital Marketing Strategist for Hail Varsity. She has covered Nebraska athletics since 2012, which has included stops at Bleacher Report, Cox Media Group’s Land of 10, and even Hail Varsity (previously from 2012-2017). She has also been featured on the Big Ten Network, NET’s Big Red Wrap-Up, and a varsity of radio shows nationwide. When not covering the Huskers, Erin is probably at Chipotle.