Chowing Down at the 49ers Training Camp Cafe

This big guy marks the spot for the 49ers training camp facility.

In Santa Clara, there is a special café that’s open 5 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Seven days a week. Year-round. And it feeds a rather burly crowd with extremely voracious appetites.

Welcome to the café at the San Francisco 49ers training camp, located appropriately enough at 4949 Centennial Blvd.

The nearly two-year-old café, operated by Bon Appetit Management Company, serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night snacks for free to the football players, staff and sports media. It is not open to the public. But recently, I was invited by team management to take a tour and to enjoy lunch here.

Talk about a hungry crowd; it’s not uncommon for Chef Chad McWilliams to go through 30 pounds of egg whites and 200 pounds of chicken a day here, as he serves up to 250 people at a time.

Bacon-wrapped filet with Burgundy wine balsamic reduction. Oh, and a few crunchy tater tots.

That includes having at the ready 75 protein smoothies (a frothy blend of egg whites, Greek yogurt, honey and fresh berries) when the players come huffing and puffing off the training field. Or stocking the café late at night with plenty of chicken skewers, cold cuts, quesadillas and trail mix when there are evening meetings or workouts.

Practicing after lunch.

The players usually get two hours to eat, then digest, before hitting the field again.

Unlike his previous stint as a chef at eBay, where he cooked a lot of Thai and Indian cuisine, McWilliams’ sticks to more basic meat-and-potatoes fare here, along with plenty of Chinese and Mexican favorites.

“They like comfort food,’’ he says with a smile. “I remember trying out Cornish game hens here once, and that didn’t go over so well. The guys much prefer chicken breasts.’’

Like other Bon Appetit corporate cafeterias, this one also makes almost everything from scratch – except for bread and other baked goods. It also adheres to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch Guide’’ in serving only sustainable seafood.

But it’s also smaller and more spartan than many of other Silicon Valley corporate cafes. You won’t find a sushi station with its own sushi chef like you do at Oracle. Food is served from regulation stainless-steel hotel pans here, not the beautiful, pricey Le Creuset cookware that’s standard at Facebook. Nor is there wine or even ice cream/fro-yo available as at Google’s cafes.

Chef Chad McWilliams and his right-hand cook.

The kitchen operates with a staff of 13 during training camp and 9 during regular season.

The players eat first, then the staff chows down.

That’s because what’s served here really has to sustain a player for the exertion ahead. And we’re talking some players who weigh upwards of 300 pounds. That’s reinforced by the laminated signs posted on the various stations, reminding diners about healthful food choices. Indeed, team nutritionists work with players who at any one time may have to drop weight or pack it on.

Mindful nutritional reminders.

The day I visited training camp, the fare included a make-your-own sandwich station, a salad bar, a grill for burgers, two soups, bacon-wrapped bistro fillet with Burgundy wine balsamic reduction, grilled chicken with heirloom tomato relish, Jamaican jerk tilapia with tropical fruit salsa, mixed vegetables, tater tots, house-made salt and pepper potato chips, and Cocoa Pebbles Rice Krispie treats.

Seared ahi with mango salsa.

Grilled "airline'' chicken with heirloom tomato relish.

Jerk-style tilapia with tropical fruit salsa.

House-made salt and pepper potato chips.

Cocoa Pebbles Rice Krispie treats.

“A lot of these guys ate nothing but pizza and fried chicken in college, so you have to educate them,’’ says Steve Risser, who’s in charge of team logistics. “You can always spot the vets from the rookies by what they have on their plate. But the rookies learn fast.’’

The ideal football body shape has changed a lot in the past six years, Risser says. Before, big, hulking muscles were the norm. But now, the trend is more toward a leaner, quicker physique, which necessitates more healthful eating. That’s why you’ll find a lot of players loading up more on brown rice and chicken, and even eschewing red meat during the season.

The chcoolate chip cookies that the players hoard.

That’s not to say they’ve given up all vices, though. The first thing the players pounce on in the café are the chewy, soft chocolate chip cookies. Baked in-house from ready-made dough provided by a local vendor, the cookies are so popular that players are known to stash them in their lockers to ensure they have a ready supply. The players are partial to filet mignons for pre-game sustenance. And when Chef McWilliams once made flan with gummi bears melted into it for a colorful Christmas treat, the players went crazy for it.

The official pass to get you into the cafe.

So, if the Niners have a championship season, will McWilliams feel like he’s had a helping hand in fueling that?

“If they win the Super Bowl, I will feel a sense of pride,’’ he says. “But really, they’re the ones on the field doing all the work.’’

More Unusual Cafes: Lunch at Facebook Headquarters

And: The Cafe at Lucasfilm in San Francisco

And: A Taste of Gia, Google’s Chinese Cafe

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