Alex Hill was right at home in front of a stove in the Training Table kitchen in Memorial Stadium, cooking up some jambalaya recently.
The dish is his specialty.
“I’m a big guy for a reason,” he said.
His strength coach for the Illini football team would like Hill to lose some of his body fat. Nutritionist Susan Kundrat, who works with the UI’s sports teams, told Hill to cook and eat like he does back home, rather than the starchy Italian food he’d been eating.
She offers cooking classes for UI athletes periodically, and one this particular evening, Hill was the guest chef for a Cajun cooking lesson.
The jambalaya he made included peppers, tomatoes, celery, garlic, onion, olive oil, chopped chicken breast, Andouille sausage, brown rice and Cajun seasoning.
Hill said Kundrat recommended he eat leaner meats, more vegetables, brown rice instead of white, and limit the starch.
“We’re trying to help him really increase muscle and decrease body fat at the same time, which is not always easy but he’s doing it,” Kundrat said.
Hill started out at 345 pounds, and the goal is to get to 330 pounds. Kundrat said he has lost 10 pounds, but that actually translates into a loss of 15 pounds of fat and a gain of five pounds of muscle.
“The trick is getting enough calories so he can train really hard,” Kundrat said.
Hill has noticed a difference.
“I feel a lot better. I have a lot more energy,” he said. “You feel lighter without really losing that much weight.”
Some of the biggest challenges for athletes trying to eat well are time, with their busy class and training schedules, and not knowing how to cook. Kundrat offers basic cooking classes that include main dishes with five ingredients or less and crockpot meals.
She gives the athletes both recipes and suggestions for eating for pre-workout fuel, post-workout recovery and for things specific to an athlete or sport. For example, she might recommend a runner who is prone to stress fractures consume more calcium.
“I’m not really a vegetable person, but the way they are incorporated into meals, I’ll actually eat them,” said volleyball player Erin Johnson, who was at the Cajun Training Table meal. “It’s really easy stuff. A lot of people think eating healthier, eating for an athlete must be really difficult. But the recipes she gives us are so easy.”
Other recommendations are eating smaller, more frequent meals so the athletes always have energy and are ready for a workout. It also helps maintain lean muscle mass, helps the body burn calories better and prevents overeating, Kundrat said.
Another offensive lineman, Hugh Thornton, has changed from eating once or twice a day to four to five times a day.
“Not big meals, but feeding my body all day long,” he said. “I feel a lot better. One of the biggest things is eating breakfast. I used to not eat breakfast at all. It’s hard, when your body doesn’t feel hungry.”
But his body adapted, he said, and he now sleeps better and has more energy during the day.
Thornton said he’s been eating more fruit and leaner meats. He’s switched from regular bacon to turkey bacon.
“I think I’m more conscious of what I eat,” said sprinter Ryisha Boyd, adding she is also eating more often, rather than three big meals.
“It’s just little tips, like switch from white rice to brown for fiber, eat cherries for recovery,” said pole vaulter Josh Hodur. “The little things stick with you, and a light bulb goes off when you’re at the store. You’re reaching for white rice and you think, go with brown rice instead.”
Athletes who train hard need to think about what they are eating, as well as their training, Kundrat said.
“What I’m trying to do is build a culture with all the teams so they’re thinking about (nutrition) too,” she said.
Alex Hill’s Louisiana Jambalaya
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and diced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 red pepper, diced
1 green pepper, diced
2 cups canned diced tomatoes
2 cups chicken broth
1 package (12-16 oz.) Andouille turkey or chicken sausage (or spice sausage), cut into [1/2]-inch thick rounds
2 cups cooked chicken breast, chopped into small pieces
1 cup brown rice
1 tsp. salt + 1/2 tsp. pepper
hot sauce and Cajun seasoning
Place onion, celery, peppers and garlic in a big pot with olive oil. Cook on medium until soft, about 5 minutes, stirring. Add chicken and sausage, and heat 4-5 minutes, or until browned. Add the rice, tomatoes, chicken broth, salt and pepper. Cover and cook 30-40 minutes on medium, or until rice is tender and liquid is soaked up. Add hot sauce and Cajun seasoning to taste.
Photos: Top, Alex Hill cooks jambalaya for a Training Table meal; middle, Susan Kundrat dishes up Cajun food for UI athletes; bottom, the jambalaya. Photos by Robert K. O'Daniell/The News-Gazette.