Trying to Cook Up Champions: Husker Executive Chef Mike SteeleMay 27, 2021 04:06PM ● By Chris Hatch
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Being a chef is like walking on a tightrope and holding the safety net all at once. There’s finding that equilibrium, that harmony that comes from coordinating tastes and textures into the alchemy that turns taste buds to symphonies, and then there’s the basic human necessity of our bodies needing fuel in the purest sense.
Michael Steele starts his daily balancing act at 6:30 a.m.
That’s when the Huskers’ executive sports chef, and Fairbury native, begins his day at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, prepping and planning and lining things up for the nearly 1,300 meals he’ll coordinate.
Part mentor, part coordinator, part artist, it doesn’t take a chef to realize that there are a lot of ingredients to success for the sports programs at Nebraska.
“Communication with the staff is critical early in the day to find out what everyone’s challenges are that day to be able to coordinate a team effort to make the meals happen to have the highest quality and flavor we can provide,” Steele said, sounding a lot like the coaches that his staff also keeps fueled throughout the day.
Growing up in his hometown about 70 miles away from Memorial Stadium, Steele spent his childhood with the trademark shade of Husker red in his veins and powdered sugar on his hands.
“My mom is an excellent cook and baker,” Steele said. “She had a side business making cakes, cupcakes, and cookies for weddings, graduations, and parties. I was curious about cooking at a young age and sometimes helped with recipes and cooked a little for myself.”
That culinary curiosity never fully left him, even when he enrolled at UNL as an architecture major, creativity lingering in his brain.
“I decided after my freshman year to get a job in a kitchen at a restaurant,” he said. “Because I always wanted to see what it was like and wanted to be able to use my creative mind and see what the culinary world was like.”
Seeking a change of scenery, and swapping out lecture halls for rolling pins and hands-on learning, Steele began studying classic French cuisine and learning everything he could about the art of being a chef, at the New England Culinary Institute.
Once he graduated from the institute, he undertook the nomadic life of the working chef, his passion rising like yeast as he continued to hone his craft. Making food for a fine-dining establishment in California, he realized that his story was a circular one.
He wanted to head home.
That’s how he found himself operating on a bigger scale at a university, taking over as the executive chef at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
“I decided to give UNK a try because it was a different experience for me in the college setting,” he said. “But I was able to use the training and creative aspects with large volume caterings on UNK's campus and in the community.”
After five years at UNK, he got a job working at the training table for the Nebraska athletic department, a state-of-the-art nutritional program/dining hall that the university uses for their athletes.
Make no mistake, this is not the kind of place where the coaches hand athletes a granola bar and a juice box and shuttle them out the door. This is a program that is precise, a place where the chef is cutting steak and on the cutting edge. This is a multi-million dollar part of the student-athlete experience and one that Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos has made sure is a big part of the overall fitness program of the athletes.
Steele, in his current role, knows that there is no ‘I’ in team. But there are two in “delicious.” As such, he is quick to credit the people around him that have helped the recent successes in the department.
“My sous chef Bryce [Benes] and I work with Dave Ellis and three other full-time dietitians on a daily basis,” Steele said. “The dietitians work one-on-one with the athletes and coaches with their perspective sports.”
Ellis started Nebraska’s nutrition department in 1994. He provided a key component in Nebraska’s run to three national championships in his first eight years on staff, and when one former starting quarterback returned to Nebraska, so did Ellis.
“When Scott Frost was hired, Dave Ellis returned with his vision of performance nutrition and recognized a large need to do more for all the athletes on the nutrition front,” Steele continued. “I applaud our administration for recognizing the nutrition needs of the athletes. I feel that our performance nutrition department really focuses on the daily needs of the athletes and helps them get a leg up on the competition. In addition to the budget increase in the training table, we have several fueling stations at all of our training facilities that provides food, hydration, and approved supplements to help the athletes meet and exceed their training needs.”
In a world where a mere seconds can make a difference between winning and losing for the athletes, Steele is determined to make food so good that you’ll want to come back for thirds.
“Coordinating weekly menus [helps] to make sure the nutrition needs are met, but also keep a pulse on what the athletes want to eat to keep them interested, engaged and excited about the food in the training table,” Steele said.
Visit huskers.com for more information on University of Nebraska sports.
This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.