Earlier this year, Zach Bennett pondered a job offer.
He had spent two years working with Texas football as an assistant sports dietitian, and he had an opportunity to become the director of football nutrition at LSU.
While Bennett considered the position, LSU finished its new football operations facility. The front of the structure housed a performance nutrition center, and LSU had already hired an executive chef, Michael Johnson, from the Seattle Seahawks. Bennett took the job.
“One of the big selling factors of coming to LSU,” Bennett said, “was this dining hall and Chef Mike and all his staff.”
Try to read the Alabama quarterback's eyes.
LSU began to develop ideas for a nutrition center seven years ago. The school wanted to help its athletes by providing healthy, well-made meals, but it struggled to find a location near LSU’s athletic facilities.
“It was always about proximity,” said Shelly Mullenix, senior associate athletic director of health and wellness. “It's always been an issue of walking across campus. How do you make it close enough where they don't have to do a whole lot of extra steps to get where they want to go?”
Plans were abandoned for a standalone structure on Skip Bertman Drive because of the state’s proposed budget cuts. School officials considered spaces in Broussard Hall, around the site of old Alex Box Stadium and the back of the football operations building. The Tiger Athletic Foundation had raised $12 million for the project. None of the ideas panned out.
Three years ago, according to previous reporting by The Advocate, LSU decided to build an athletes-only dining hall inside Tiger Stadium. It would have filled a floor of the south end zone addition. Instead, LSU fit the nutrition center into its plans for the football operations building.
Is LSU’s new football facility and nutrition center over the top?
On Wednesday, LSU finally unveiled its nutrition center. School officials cut a ceremonial ribbon in front of the new building, and LSU gave tours of the space, which had cost $28 million in private donations from the Tiger Athletic Foundation.
The second part of a two-phase plan, the renovations updated the football team’s locker room, coaches offices, players lounge, meeting areas and training rooms.
Mullenix, who has worked on LSU’s athletic training staff for 23 years, called the nutrition center “probably the most important part” of the new building.
The idea for sleeping pods in LSU's $28 million renovation of its football operations building came from a travel issue nearly three years ago.
“I think between what we've done with having the performance nutrition center here and having the locker room set up in such a way that they don't want to leave it,” Mullenix said, “has afforded them more time to rest, more recovery, more access to the medical facility, more access to their coaches and has made it an inviting place to be.”
Johnson took over as executive chef four months ago. He had attended culinary school, gotten married and started a family over 12 years in Baton Rouge. He moved away, eventually working with the Seahawks.
Johnson’s career split his marriage, and his family moved back to Louisiana. An LSU fan who had seen College World Series games inside Rosenblatt Stadium, the job at LSU allowed him to work for a school he loved and live near his children. He arrived in April.
The LSU athletics department unveiled its new Football Operations and Performance Nutrition Center Wednesday, July 24, 2019 with a ribbon cutt…
On Wednesday, Johnson and his staff prepared an array of food, from charcuterie to beef tenderloin to seafood gumbo. His menu will change every day, giving LSU student-athletes variety.
When the football team toured the facility Sunday night, one player thought the nutrition center smelled like J. Alexander’s. Mullenix thought she smelled Louie’s Cafe in there Wednesday morning.
“I'm pretty sure it wasn't Louie’s,” Mullenix said.
Johnson’s expertise and the options at the nutrition center, which can fit 168 people, help Bennett and the three other dietitians on LSU’s staff.
They will work closely with Johnson, editing the menu to fit the needs of LSU players. Then, the dietitians can make meal plan recommendations based on individual needs.
“This makes my job 10 times easier,” Bennett said. “The rare thing that happens with this dining hall you can't find many places is, Chef Mike and his staff are able to make really healthy food taste really good."