Please keep feeding the Penguins

“An army travels on its stomach.”

So who said it? Napoleon? Frederick the Great? Some historians attribute the statement to both of them.

Whoever. The message is the same: In combat, nutrition is almost as important as munitions in achieving victory.

But can the same be said for sports teams?

Step behind the scenes of the current Penguins quest for victory and head chef Geoff Straub would say that most assuredly, good nutrition is right up there with good teamwork in making it to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

When the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex opened in Cranberry Township in August, 2015, Straub, who has called Bellevue home for the past 16 years, was hired as the executive chef for the facility, which is the official practice venue of the Penguins.

“I work for a company called Parkhurst Dining, a division of Eat ‘n Park Hospitality Group. We are a contract dining company that specializes in providing upscale, chef-driven cuisine to our clients. Part of my responsibilities is to feed the Penguins when they are in the building. Over the course of last season, I worked very closely with the training staff and strength coaches to provide the team with the level of health and nutrition to fuel professional athletes. My role has now evolved into providing the team with all of their meals while practicing here, on game days at PPG Paints Arena, and their meals during their flights out of Pittsburgh.”

Straub has had an interest in food preparation since his growing up years in Erie, PA where, as a child, he often spent time with his mom in the kitchen, helping with dinner. “We used to go to different farms and pick fresh berries and tomatoes, go home and make and jar our own jelly and spaghetti sauce. When it came time to figure out what to do after high school, my mom suggested culinary school.”

He did just that, studying at the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts and earning an associate’s degree in Specialized Technology: Culinary Arts.

Several factors determine the types of meals that Straub prepares.

“I work closely with the training staff from training camp through playoffs to make sure that our meals meet the current requirements of the athletes. That changes over the season, due to the length of the season, injuries to the players and how the players are responding to certain diets. We focus on using organic grass-fed beef, organic free-range poultry, organic produce, ancient grains, sprouted grain breads and the elimination of all refined sugars.”

He said that he also avoids bleached flours and anything processed or pre-made. “We make all of our soups, stocks, sauces and dressings from scratch, using the cleanest ingredients.”

He and his staff also address their clients’ special needs.

“We have a few allergies with some of the players, and that's important to manage. Some players also have food sensitivities to certain things. At the end of the day, the players are humans, just like you and me, and their bodies react to certain foods in certain ways, so we try to avoid using certain items in our preparation,” Straub said.

A typical workday often begins pre-dawn, with prepping and cooking continuing into the night. Straub said that game days can be long days, as the staff starts prepping breakfast at 5:30 a.m. and finishes the day with a post-game meal that can last until 11:30 p.m.

He is quick to credit his staff for their skills.

“Fortunately, I have a great team of chefs who are the backbone of what goes into feeding a professional sports team. Lots of long hours and long weeks, as the season can last almost 10 months, if you go all the way. Again, my team is committed and invested in putting in the time and energy to keep the players in the best shape possible so they can perform to the best of their abilities.”

His staff is quick to repay the compliment.

Fellow chef Mark Collins, director of dining at the Lemieux complex, said, “Geoff is so passionate. I’ve worked with many chefs, but he is one of the best. He cares for the whole team -- not just the players, but also the team in the kitchen.”

Despite the long hours in Cranberry, Straub enjoys cooking for his family “…multiple times a week! I think it’s part of the reason why my wife married me (ha-ha). I love to cook for my wife and my daughter and son, even though the kids aren't the most adventurous eaters. But food is my passion and even though I'll work a 15-hour day, I still love to come home and make a meal for my wife. We both love to entertain family and friends in our home and host several annual celebrations that always revolve around the dining room table.”

Wife Megan gives her husband high marks for his skills.

“He takes his role as an executive chef VERY seriously. Constantly striving to perfect his craft through knowledge, refined technical skill, and experimentation, he caters to his guests’ palettes and the requirements of the athletes that he feeds. What makes his food perfection is the amount of care and determination that he puts in, along with the ingredients. He doesn't make food to feed people. He creates meals to satisfy. He truly cares about his guests. His genuine hospitality shows in every bite.”

Straub offers words of food advice for high school athletes, explaining, “What you put into your body is what you’re going to get out of it. If you're a young athlete trying to pursue a future in sports, think about what you put into your body. Keep it clean. Eat your greens.”

Straub explained that “clean foods” are those that are “…as close to their natural state as possible, unrefined, minimally processed, whole foods. The idea is that by starting with good quality foods and keeping it ‘clean,’ you can maximize the nutritional value of the product.”

He proudly explains the “clean” fare to be found at the Training Table Café, open to the public at the Cranberry venue.

“It’s basically a concession stand, but you won’t find nachos or french fries. What we offer is a reflection of what we offer the players.”

And players benefit from his concern right up to the last meal of their day.

“No more pizza and beer after a game,” Straub said.

A recent post-game menu included grilled flank steak, vegetables, a vegetable mash -- a blend of cauliflower and rutabaga -- a salad and some sushi.

A lover of the game himself, Straub often joins a non-pro team for ice time as early as 6:30 a.m.

The often hectic schedule, the satisfaction of working with the Penguins and with his dedicated staff, and the feeling of fulfillment in serving up nutritious food add up to what Straub simply calls “…a dream job!”

No doubt, Napoleon (or Frederick) would have been happy to have Straub on his side. For sure, the Penguins are grateful to have him on their team.