Aided by a skeleton crew of thirteen—from dishwashers to cooks—Bouldin is responsible year-round for the dietary care and feeding of football linemen, gymnasts, rowers, baseball pinch hitters, cheerleaders, ballet dancers, water polo players, and many more.
A former defensive tackle at Pioneer High (he graduated in 2003) and the University of Toledo (2007), the Ann Arbor native understands athletes’ “constant and never-ending hunger.” But it took him four years after graduating to identify his true vocation.
“I left college wondering what to do with the rest of my life,” he admits. “My father owns Tend 2 It, a local painting company, so I went to work for him—and discovered I didn’t like painting.” When a family friend told Bouldin he had just gotten a contract to feed the Michigan football team and asked if he wanted a job, Bouldin shrugged his broad shoulders and said, “Sure.” He quickly discovered that he had found his passion.
“I knew the minute I started that this is where I belong,” he says with a broad smile. His first role was kitchen cleaner, but he worked his way through the kitchen hierarchy up to first cook and executive sous chef. He now works for Center Plate, the sports and leisure division of Sodexo, a multimillion-dollar international organization that contracts with the university.
Bouldin’s work day begins by 7 a.m., and ends when the last meal has been delivered to the last team—six days a week during football and basketball season. In between, he confers with coaches, team dietitians, and nutritionists; creates multiple daily menus; manages orders and budgets; experiments with new dishes; helps prepare and produce hundreds of pounds of menu items; and supervises his assistants in the cramped kitchen quarters in the bowels of Michigan Stadium.
“During the last stadium renovations, when the university added the suites, no one thought about the logistics of feeding 110,000 people,” he says ruefully.
Football, basketball, and baseball players eat three meals a day in an austere underground banquet room, while other “Olympic” teams (sports represented at the Olympics) eat one or two meals daily at Yost Arena.
“I have a very, very extensive Excel spreadsheet, and I stare at that thing all day long,” Bouldin says. “Practices and games are constantly getting changed or moved. Numbers are constantly changing. Coaches may start out asking for a meal for forty, then raise the number to seventy or even 400.” Amazingly, in his years on the job, he has never had a mix-up—“knock on wood!”
“Each team has a certain culture,” Bouldin says. “Several don’t eat pork. Coach Howard doesn’t either, and he has a shellfish allergy, so I keep that in mind when I create the basketball menus.” Former baseball coach Erik Bakich asked for plant-based foods and “carbs that come from the ground” to feed his team, so baseball menus lean on turnips, potatoes, and parsnips. Football coach Jim Harbaugh, on the other hand, has five very strong preferences: “honey stinger chicken, sloppy joes, honey-baked ham, pasta with ragù, and hot dogs—but he absolutely loves steaks.”
The athletic food program is just now getting back on track, with the first year-round sports calendar since 2018–19. Like the rest of the university, the chef and his team were sent home in mid-March 2020 and stayed there until mid-June, at which time Bouldin and his boss were the only two working in the kitchens, “just feeding football and basketball players.” Then the hockey team appeared, and gradually other teams swung into practice and play schedules.
Bouldin works closely with nutritionists assigned to each team, catering not only to coaches’ preferences, but also to the teams’ individual physical challenges and players’ palates. “If I talk to someone from Colorado who is homesick for his mother’s pot roast, I’ll find a way to make him or her a pot roast.”
He also recognizes international athletes’ specific needs. “Hockey in particular has players from all over the world. A lot have allergies, so I also have to provide menu items avoiding soy, gluten, and dairy—yet I need to provide a wide range of options for everyone, from Tandoori chicken to a gyro bar, Asian noodles, and menus with Asian themes, as well as international comfort foods and fresh salads.” Food knowledge also differs from team to team. When Bouldin served chimichurri to the football team, players asked what it was—but the hockey players welcomed it enthusiastically.
The current favorite menu item now—“across the board, from football players to cheerleaders, dancers, rowers, and track and field athletes”—is honey stinger chicken, a hot and spicy patty tossed in a honey sauce. “We go through an egregious number of cases of chicken,” Bouldin says. “Despite having ten or more other options, players are eating three or four portions per person.”
Teams also share special meals on special occasions. The football team celebrates wins by feasting on twelve- and sixteen-ounce steaks, crab legs, lobster tails, clam chowder, coconut shrimp, and an ice cream bar—“and this year they had a lot to celebrate,” Bouldin points out. Unfortunately, his schedule is so hectic that the former football player was only able to watch one U-M football game from beginning to end: Michigan–Ohio State, because it was played away.
“I’m still trying to figure out how to have a personal life,” the chef says, grinning and shaking his head. He married a U-M graduate three years ago, and the couple has year-old twins who share time with 960 university athletes. For the last eleven years, he has spent every Thanksgiving away from his family, making dinners for as many as 700 athletes and their families. That translates to at least 175 pounds of turkey breast meat, more than 200 pounds of mashed potatoes, and a mind-boggling quantity of side dishes and pies.
“Feeding athletes makes me feel part of their lives and their successes,” Bouldin says “I understand that their body is their vessel, and I want to help get them to their very best performance, helping them prepare, stay healthy, and prevent injuries.”