Chef Michael Johnson knows a thing or two about fueling a few Fighting Tigers. With more than 30 years in the food and hospitality industries and roots in Louisiana, he’s now Executive Chef of the Tiger Athletics Program at Louisiana State University and runs the entire culinary program for each team with the help of his staff and dieticians.
That means home games, travel days, texts from players on the off-season in search of cooking tips. That means catering to 500+ individual athletes’ palates and their unique dietary needs. Let’s just say Michael is the definition of a team player.
We caught up with Michael for Spiceology’s Periodically Inspired interview series that takes a deep dive into a chef’s creative side, approach to menus, their favorite things, and more. Read the full interview and get to know Chef Michael Johnson below:
When did you first find a love of cooking?
“Both of my grandmas were very active in the kitchen, and I enjoyed watching them. So it was those moments spending time with my grandmas while they were cooking. They were both Midwestern farmer’s wives who prided themselves on home cooked meals.”
How is cooking for a team of elite athletes different from any other type of cooking?
“The challenge is that every meal needs to be different. We have lots of ongoing conversations with the athletes and dieticians on what they’d like to have to eat while trying to keep things healthy. These student athletes, they’re all someone’s kids, so we cook comfort food for some and press the envelope for others.
Dishes like pho and poke might be very different from what their Mom and Dad cooked at home. But honestly I like that the meals we’re making every day are different, there’s nothing mundane about what we do (laughs).”
People around you, music, books, travel – where do you find inspiration when you create new dishes?
“Since I travel with them, and I’m with them so often, a lot of the inspiration comes from just talking with the athletes. Also, my own children are between 11-17 years old, and I get a lot of inspiration from them. Cooking for my own kids is one of the most daunting tasks there is (laughs).”
How do you help the team manage off-season eating?
“It really depends on the team; each team has different body types and they go year-round. I rely on the dieticians, but a primary piece for me is making the food available for them. I also give the athletes my cell number for when they’re away if they have cooking and diet questions. I’ve literally walked players step by step through a recipe over text.”
What advice would you give a chef still in culinary school?
“Make sure to stay humble. Focus on the food, and make that the most important part of your talent. There are some tremendous egos out there, but the most fruitful chefs have gotten themselves thereby being humble and with humility – they pay homage to the food, not their talent.”
How do you experiment with flavor?
“A lot of times when we’re trying something new or different, we create a flavor, close our eyes, taste it, and let the ingredients speak to you. That’s how we guide ourselves with new spices. We try them in their rawest form and then talk through the flavors as a team.”
What is your ethos about balancing nutrition and flavor?
“That’s the most difficult task we have because we have so many different body types we’re designing menus for. They’re young and often with a limited diversity on what they eat. We work and communicate one-on-one with most of the players; then we’ll put out as much variety at one time for each meal and answer the athlete’s questions. They all need to eat to keep up with training and gameplay – it’s just hard to balance.”
Do you feel competitive with other chefs?
“I feel competitive with myself from yesterday. But no, not with other chefs. I feel camaraderie, and I think I’m my own worst critic. I judge myself harsher.”
What’s one of your favorite ingredients to cook with and why?
“It’s gonna sound weird: vinegar and oil. I love a good high-end olive oil, and it’s super high in polyphenols. And vinegars are just interesting, there are so many forms and flavors. l love the tart and acidity.”
How do you approach keeping things interesting and catering to each player’s palettes during the season?
“We have 508 athletes – so that’s 508 opinions (laughs). But keeping things interesting is not something that’s hard for me. Anyone who’s involved – my staff and the dieticians – on a daily basis we’re getting feedback on the food. It’s Pandora’s box for complaints, but it’s also betterment. I believe in baby steps of betterment every day.”
What’s a technique or trick you learned in school or along the way that even home cooks could use?
“I was shown to use the backside of a ceramic plate to sharpen a serrated blade. Using the unfinished rim, you run the serrations slowly across the rim allowing the rim to briefly grind into and out of the serrations along the raw ceramic.”
Favorite thing to cook for yourself?
“I let Uber cook for me (laughs). But I love cooking for my kids. When I’m at work – I don’t get to cook as much as I used to. But I love doing seafood and fish; fishing is a hobby.”
Do you change up the menu during playoff games or finals?
“It’s kinda weird – before a game we don’t change the menu at all. There’s a heritage at risk, and we don’t mess with that. But if the game is won we celebrate with something special for the players post-game.’
What’s a spice you consider under-valued?
“I’m a huge marjoram fan. If you ever make a red sauce you need marjoram, and I just really like the flavor and characteristics it provides.”
What are your breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurant recs when in Baton Rouge?
“Oh, we’re going straight to New Orleans (laughs). You’d be hard-pressed not to experience great food there.”
Keep up with Michael and all things LSU Athletics on Instagram