It’s a grocery list that could feed a village:
- 120 pounds of salmon
- 60 pounds of shrimp
- 40 pounds of chicken
- 60 pounds of turkey
- 40 pounds of steak
But in this case, it’s a just pregame feast for UNLV football players.
Assembling such a hearty spread is a culinary feat that the Hospitality College’s catering team pulls off regularly under the guidance of executive chef Mark Sandoval and his team of assistant chefs and student workers.
Through an interdisciplinary partnership with UNLV Athletics, the Hospitality team serves all Rebel student-athletes — and not just on game day, but every day. It’s a win-win for student-athletes (each of whom require specialized nutrition) and hospitality students looking for hands-on industry experience.
“Our students get a lot of work experience outside of the classroom — including working on the Strip, at our coffee shop, and through our event catering program,” Chef Sandoval said. “Being able to feed our athletes is another great way to get that real-world experience.”
The Hospitality College’s partnership with athletics started small. As Sandoval became more involved with campus activities, he noticed that UNLV’s athletic teams were eating at the dining commons or using outside vendors. So he pitched the college’s catering option to the men’s basketball team.
“We started with them because the team is a bit smaller and more manageable, and we wanted to educate ourselves first on how much they ate and what they liked,” Sandoval explained. “We did two meals a day, five days a week, for about a year and a half.”
At the same time, UNLV Athletics started focusing on improving the student-athlete experience by offering holistic support. This included increasing funding for fueling stations, as well as a dedicated athlete dining hall, with nutrition expertise from UNLV Athletics’ director of performance nutrition, Nicole Kiley.
Although Kiley had some culinary and food-service experience, she said the athletics department needed a team that could navigate the complexities of operating a major food-service operation, including assistance with purchasing and health inspections. Realizing the UNLV campus was home to a top-ranked Hospitality College, the athletics department didn’t have to go far to find the help it needed.
Following the completion of the Fertitta Football Complex in 2020, UNLV Athletics and the Hospitality College launched the Rebel Training Table. The meal program offers student-athletes a buffet-style breakfast four days a week with a three-pronged goal: fuel the athletes’ performance, build camaraderie, and improve their overall well-being.
“Collaborating with an on-campus partner has allowed us to have more input and control,” Kiley said. “Providing a variety of food that meets everyone’s needs is not easy. I work with the chefs on identifying dietary needs, and they know how to make it look and taste great.”
Sandoval’s team also took ownership of catering the football team’s pregame meals. In true banquet style, hospitality students dress the tables, polish the silverware, and help cook and serve the food. And did we mention the quantity of that food?
For a traditional 100-person banquet, Sandoval usually calculates that each person will consume roughly five ounces of starches, four ounces of vegetables, and six ounces of protein. When it comes to Rebel football players, though, it can be nearly triple the amount.
“We like to say that feeding 105 of our football players is like feeding 210 average people,” Sandoval said. “Typical culinary formulas of calculating quantities don’t apply in these situations. The sheer volume of food is mind-blowing.”
While the athletes chow down on a quality meal, the student workers who assist with the entire production develop invaluable hospitality skills. Students not only learn event management but also how to run a business, putting into practice their knowledge of inventory control, revenue management, customer service, just-in-time service, and food sanitation.
“Our students are at an advantage when they come into leadership roles in the industry,” said Sandoval, “because they understand operations and service — whether it’s an event for 50 people or 5,000.”