As Vanderbilt’s food coach, Noori is in charge of the Training Table, the university’s nationally known athletic dining facility. As a former athlete himself, and with a degree in physical education and years of restaurant experience, Noori is a natural fit for the job.
“I’ve always liked being around athletes, but I ended up working in restaurants,” the Iranian-born Noori says. “I met Vanderbilt’s former athletic director at a function, and he told me his plans for opening the Training Table. He hired me, so now I’m taking care of the athletes.”
It’s a big job, with 350 athletes—spread across 16 teams—to feed. Because of NCAA regulations, the facility is only open for the evening meal during the school year. However, when football camp is in session before classes begin in late summer, Noori oversees four or five meals a day.
“We’ll serve 60 to 80 pounds of chicken breast per meal, and that’s just a side item,” he says. “For breakfast we’ll have 900 eggs—all cracked by hand. When the players are out on the field, we send out fresh fruit and popsicles to help keep their body temperatures down.”
Since coming to Vanderbilt in 1990, Noori has witnessed a big change in the way athletes eat. “In the past I would have to refill the ranch dressing three times during a meal. Now they won’t touch it,” he says. “Today they want balsamic vinegar and olive oil. They want tofu and lots of vegetables. Before, football players wouldn’t touch salad, and now they’re filling up on it.
“It’s not about feeding athletes; it’s about fueling them,” he says. “They want simple food. When I first started, they wanted fried catfish. Now it’s grilled salmon. The vegetables are steamed, and I don’t use any butter or spices. You can’t feed today’s athletes with 50-year-old recipes.”
Noori’s reputation for innovation and excellence is well known. In 2002 Sports Illustrated recognized Vanderbilt’s athletic dining facility as the nation’s best and the dining staff as the best in the SEC. CBS This Morning featured Magic in a live segment, and he also has been featured in USA Today and Sports Illustrated for Women.
With that kind of publicity, it’s no wonder Noori is in demand as a consultant. Other athletic organizations call on him regularly, and he has worked with and designed menus for the NFL Tennessee Titans. He volunteers in the local community, speaking to groups about the importance of good nutrition. At Vanderbilt he meets weekly with a dietician and coordinates with the strength coaches to help particular players.
“They come to me when a player needs to lose or gain weight,” Noori says. “When Chris Williams [BS’07] came to Vanderbilt, he weighed 240 pounds. He gained 80 pounds while he was here and was a first-round draft pick by the Chicago Bears.”
Noori and the Training Table also help to recruit athletes to the university. He meets with the players and their parents, assuring them that he will do whatever it takes to help maximize their talent.
“From the outside, it just looks like we’re feeding them, but it’s much more than that,” he says. “If a player wants to get to the next level, we can help them get to the size the next level requires. I tell the parents that as far as food goes, they don’t have to be concerned. They know their child is in good hands.”
It’s not all broccoli and tofu, though. Noori will occasionally serve chicken fingers, wings or steaks—but he limits fried options to around once a month. “When I cook steaks, I have to get 280 to 300 pounds just for one meal,” he says. “They’re big steaks, about a pound and a half each, and some players will eat four or five.”
Not every meal is a hit, though. Pomegranates were unpopular and, much to his chagrin, so were lamb shanks.
As athletic training evolves, so does the Training Table. Menus are regularly enhanced, and one of Noori’s first changes was the elimination of soft drinks.
“I love working with athletes, and nutrition is my passion,” he says. “Times have changed, and I’ve had to change, too. But today’s athletes have much better eating habits, and they make my job easy.”
So what does a world-class food coach eat when he’s left to his own devices?
“A bologna sandwich,” he says with a smile. “But it has to be good mortadella on French bread with a kosher pickle. I could eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
© 2014 Vanderbilt University | Photography: Steve Green, John Russell / Location Courtesy of Johnny Howell Produce
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