CHARLOTTESVILLE — On Monday morning, stillness filled the dimly lit dining hall at John Paul Jones Arena. The room won’t be so quiet — or as empty, or as dark — by the end of the week.
For UVa football, preseason practice starts Friday. The night before, Mike London’s team will gather in the dining hall to share the first of many meals this month.
In all, about 130 people will be coming to dinner Thursday night — the large majority of them players — but “you might as well say it’s 300, the way they eat,” Tim Saul, executive chef at JPJ, said with a smile Monday.
Saul, 40, is the person who decides what UVa student-athletes will eat at their training table throughout the year and then oversees the preparation of that food. Officially, he’s an employee of Aramark. But his office is in JPJ, and he plays an important role in the athletics operation at the University.
His immediate concern is London’s football team, which will chow down at JPJ four times a day during training camp: for breakfast, lunch, dinner and, around 9 p.m., a late snack.
Saul took a few minutes Monday morning to talk to VirginiaSports.com about his background and his work at UVa.
HOMEGROWN: Saul was raised in Crozet and graduated in 1988 from Western Albemarle High School. His father owned Crozet Foods, a grocery store that was an institution in the small town. Saul now lives at Lake Monticello with his wife, Kristin. She’s an assistant manager at the University’s Observatory Hill dining hall. Saul’s brother Landon is head chef at Vivace restaurant in Charlottesville.
CAREER PATH: After graduating from WAHS, Saul spent a couple of years at Piedmont Virginia Community College. Eventually he enrolled at Johnson & Wales University, from which he earned a culinary degree after studying at its campuses in Charleston, S.C., Providence, R.I., and Norfolk. When he returned to the Charlottesville area, he worked at Lord Hardwicke’s restaurant, where he was chef and general manager, then took a job about 10 years ago with UVa’s catering operation at Newcomb Hall. He’s been in charge of the dining hall at JPJ since the arena opened in 2006.
BUSY MAN: During the school year, Saul estimates, he works at least 80 hours a week. In addition to planning and running the student-athletes’ training table, Saul and his staff are responsible for all the other food consumed at JPJ — other than concessions during games and concerts. He oversees all the catering for the private suites at JPJ, Scott Stadium and Davenport Field. “When we’re in season, it’s crazy,” Saul said. “We’re feeding students Sunday through Thursday, and there’s always something during the weekend.” For concerts at JPJ, Saul provides food for the artists and crews upon request.
FUELING UP: The menus Saul plans for the football players during training camp this month feature “lots of carbs, salts, lean proteins,” Saul said. “We have to take into account they’re sometimes working out twice a day. Anything heavy is usually served at night.” Grilled chicken breasts are offered at every meal except breakfast. The menu features lots of pastas, Saul said, with homemade meat and marinara sauces.
BACK IN SCHOOL: The first training table for the 2010-11 academic year is Aug. 22, Saul said. The dining hall is open from 5 to 8 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, and about 300 student-athletes eat each night at JPJ. Until the arena opened, they couldn’t all eat together at one place on Grounds for most of the 2000s. Overseeing the dining hall is Saul’s favorite part of his job. “I call it my dining room,” he said. “I love it because I can come up with an idea and execute it and see immediately if the students like it. If I want to try rattlesnake — if it comes in within my cost guidelines — I can nail my rattlesnake stew.”
WEALTH OF OPTIONS: Rest assured, less exotic fare than rattlesnake stew is the standard at JPJ, which has a series of stations from which diners can choose each night. These include a table with salad items, a table with carbohydrates such as potatoes and rice, a table with fresh fruit, a table with several vegetables, a table with lean proteins, including chicken and beef and fish, and a pizza station. When the weather cools down, there’s a soup of the day, and twice a week made-to-order stir fry is available. Fat-free yogurt is offered for dessert, and Saul’s staff makes smoothies for diners a couple times a week, Saul said. Gatorade is the drink of choice for most UVa athletes.
PHILOSOPHICALLY SPEAKING: Saul worked closely with Rob Skinner, UVa’s director of sports nutrition from September 2007 to this March, to plan menus for the student-athletes. “Our principle here is: as lean and as fresh as you can get,” Saul said. “Pretty much everything is made here.” He shops locally whenever possible. “August is a great time,” Saul said. “All the harvests are coming in, and it’s insane.”
OFF-LIMITS: In general, Saul said, he doesn’t serve cream sauces or fried food in the dining hall. No french fries. No hot dogs. No butter. (“We use zero trans-fat margarine,” Saul said.) Hamburgers? Once every two weeks. “One of the biggest complaints is that we don’t have hamburgers more often,” Saul said. He’s not inflexible. Once a semester, chicken tenders are served in the dining hall. “That was Rob’s give-back to the students,” Saul said with a smile. One of the most popular entrees he serves is General Tso’s Chicken. “I try to bake that chicken instead of frying it,” Saul said. “Try to fool ’em.”
LIVING THE DREAM: July is the slowest month for Saul. August’s arrival means another hectic school year is looming. That’s fine with him. “It’s busy, but I’ve had some time off,” he said, “and I’m ready to get back to cooking.” Because of his management and administrative responsibilities, Saul doesn’t spend as much time in the kitchen as he’d like to, but he finds his job satisfying nonetheless. And challenging. “I have to keep the meat-eaters happy, the people who don’t eat pork happy, the vegetarians happy, the vegans happy,” Saul said. “But it’s fun. It allows me to be creative.”