To be the chef of a major college football program requires a different gear during training camp in August. This is Michael Christie’s fourth quarter of every year, the three-week slog that tests all of his skills and abilities. He is the first person on the move at Gossett Team House every morning. He arrives at 4 a.m., unlocks the doors, turns off the alarms and flicks on the lights of the cafeteria. The stoves begin to warm after that, but not before Christie walks to his closet office and puts on his uniform. It’s a double-breasted white coat, embroidered with the Maryland football logo. His name and the word “Chef” are stitched above the left pocket.
About an hour later, after Christie has run through his inventory and checked the temperatures of his fridges, the rest of his team shows up to begin preparing 6:30 a.m. breakfast for 180 players and staff members. Over the next 90 minutes, they will scramble 60 pounds of eggs and boil another 15 pounds of egg whites. They will cook 80 pounds of potatoes, 60 pounds of bacon, 30 pounds of turkey bacon, 30 pounds of turkey sausage and set out roughly 80 gallons of Gatorade and juice.
By the time the players and coaches arrive, the cooks are already beginning to look ahead to 11:30 a.m. lunch and Christie is already thinking about their meals for the next day. As Maryland’s football chef, he’s not only in charge of his 16 employees. He’s also responsible for providing the absurd quantity of food required to fuel 109 players and 71 staff members, all the while ensuring the standards of quality he has set for himself throughout his culinary career. During fall camp, Christie estimates that he produces roughly 540,000 calories in his kitchen per day — he tries to make at least 3,000 calories worth of food for each person in the building.
“The kids, they’ll pay me a compliment and say they don’t know how I do it,” Christie said. “I’m not one of those chefs that is a rah-rah guy or anything like that. But I show it with my work ethic. That’s the way I show my passion for what I do.”
It is a difficult balance for Christie, 46, who grew up in Jamaica. His mother ran a simple restaurant that served jerk chicken and other Caribbean dishes, and when she wasn’t there, she was cooking mounds of food for Michael and his 11 siblings. He immigrated to the United States when he was 16, settling in Montgomery County and slowly working his way up through the food industry shortly after that. He landed with the University of Maryland’s Dining Services in the mid-1990s, and after a long stint running the kitchen at the school’s golf course, he was transferred to be the football program’s chef under then-Coach Randy Edsall in 2011. There haven’t been many changes for Christie since Edsall was fired and DJ Durkin took over as coach last December, except for one: Durkin has ordered that food be available all day, every day. Whereas the previous regime had prescribed set times for availability to food, the players can now walk into the cafeteria and get snacks and other food basically whenever they want.
“It’s probably something that goes unnoticed sometimes from people outside. We definitely don’t overlook it in our program. The energy, the fuel, what they put in their body, that’s a big part of them staying healthy during practice. … He and his staff take great pride in their work,” Durkin said. “And it’s really good food.”
It has forced Christie to remain one step ahead at all times, especially during training camp, when he cooks three times a day for nearly a month. (During the season, his staff has a more flexible schedule). He receives two shipments a day — one from U.S. Foods and the other from Coastal Sunbelt Produce. The team also receives one massive order from Pepsi every week, which includes about 300 gallons of Gatorade. The U.S. Foods truck is too big to pull up in front of Gossett, so it breaks down all the food at a warehouse near campus and packs a smaller truck to make the delivery. The staples of the orders are simple enough — chicken, potatoes, rice — but the sheer volume of food that is processed still leaves Christie at a loss for words.
Here’s a sample: for lunch every day during fall camp, Christie cooks five 20-pound cases of chicken, 25 pounds of rice, and 60 pounds of tater tots while chopping 49 pineapples, among other fruits and vegetables. For dinner, he typically cooks an additional 120 pounds of rotisserie chicken. The style varies — sometimes it’s southern fried, other times it’s Cajun-rubbed — but it must be marinated the day before. Each Maryland player is estimated to eat at least 15 ounces of chicken with each meal. Christie also likes to give the team other protein options, so he cooks at least 120 pounds of ribeye steak and some type of fish (cod, shrimp, tilapia or catfish) per week. Just last Monday, he switched up the menu and made 550 chicken wings. Every piece was devoured within an hour.
Christie isn’t directly responsible for monitoring what players eat. The team’s lead nutritionist, Jordan Jennewine, oversees the diets of 109 players and currently has a list of about 15 “high-need” players that she monitors during meals in the cafeteria; some players need to gain weight, others need to trim body fat. She is in constant communication with Christie about his menu. Durkin has also stressed, with his usual intensity, healthy meals for his players. But Christie has tried to become an extension of the new staff and its vigor, and most of the players talk to him as if he’s a coach. They call him “Chef Mike” and will sometimes make personal food requests on the side.
“I’ll just see him and say, ‘Hey, Chef.’ He’s a really good cook,” said senior offensive lineman Maurice Shelton, who keeps coming away impressed with Christie even after fours years with the program. “The food is really good. During camp, we had this turkey sandwich. It had coleslaw in it. It was like a turkey reuben on rye bread. It might have been the best thing I’ve had here.”
Junior linebacker Nnamdi Egbuaba, who is from Nigeria, requested some food from his home country last year. A few days later, Christie made the entire team a lineup of African eats: fu-fu, beef stew and fried plantains. When a player came to Christie earlier in camp and told him he was gluten-free, but also asked him to keep it quiet, Christie ordered gluten-free bread and made it a personal part of his never-ending to-do list. Last week, some of the linemen requested tater tots with breakfast, too, so Christie is now baking the hot commodity multiple times a day. For as much food that is cooked, he tries to put his signature touch on meals. He mostly experiments with spices and seasoning on the chicken, which he learned from his mother in Jamaica.
The job isn’t without challenges. Christie has a very small kitchen — he works with about 30 pans at a time and has to play Tetris with his goods because his freezer and pantry are not suited for a football program. He’s met with architects about the new kitchen in Cole Field House, which is currently being renovated and will be home of the team’s new indoor facility. But Christie loves his gig, even in August, when the days run from 4 a.m. to 7 p.m. He considers himself to be a part of a small sacred fraternity in college football. He attended a gathering of college football chefs in Massachusetts recently, reflecting with other cooks about what they go through every season.
“My job is to make sure the quality is there with the quantity,” Christie said. “I try not shirk on either one of them.”
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