COLUMBIA — Ramone Dickerson is obsessed with finding the perfect bite. His favorite? Cornbread with blueberry jam, blue cheese and bacon.
When South Carolina’s executive performance chef is formulating menus for the university’s hundreds of athletes, he always has “the bite” in mind. From Peruvian-style blackened chicken to Indian street snack aloo chaat to celebrate the Hindu New Year, Dickerson loves introducing new ingredients and flavors to elevate college-student favorites and fitness-friendly meals.
“If somebody is like, hey I don’t know any of this stuff, I can be like oh, that’s roasted chicken, that’s rice and duck, that’s potatoes in a spicy cheese sauce,” Dickerson said. “So we try to do it so it doesn’t feel so insanely foreign.”
Athletics in-house dining once had a staff of more than 30 people, but since cuts related to the COVID-19 pandemic, a team of 10 plans, prepares and transports thousands of pounds of food daily between the Dodie Center and Long Family Football Operations Center.
The chaos all pays off for Dickerson.
“If you create a rapport, and students say things like ‘Man, I have no idea what it is, but I know it’s going be good,’ that’s what’s worth it when you get that trust,” Dickerson said. “Our athletes are so respectful and so appreciative, and that makes it so enjoyable to work and easier to cook and get excited about it.”
How Ramone Dickerson became a performance chef
Dickerson’s path to the Gamecocks began with 2 Fat 2 Fly, a food truck he co-founded serving jumbo bone-in wings filled with everything from mac and cheese to jambalaya. The truck was a huge hit among South Carolina football players, and that caught the attention of the team’s former nutritionist.
“She was like hey, you guys cook food in a way that the players generally always eat it, and that’s kind of hard from a catering perspective,” Dickerson said. “I got offered the job as executive chef … The first year was crazy because it was the first year they built the new practice facility so we were doing all these donor dinners and crazy catering. You’d go from making garlic chicken thighs and pepper beef in the dining hall to like seared pork belly with a blackberry jus and goat cheese.”
Dickerson started as South Carolina’s executive performance chef across all sports in 2018 after the school opted to stop using corporate supplier Aramark in its athletics dining halls.
Moving from the food truck full of fryer oil into an environment that demanded nutrition-packed meals was a big change, and Dickerson said it forced him to expand his understanding of cooking and innovate on techniques that he had rarely had to question before.
“On the truck it was Southern, it was indulgent, so health wasn’t exactly at the forefront,” Dickerson laughed. “I thought it would be cool to go experience a place where you had to actually think. You couldn’t just be like add butter, you had to keep dietary restrictions in mind. I was intrigued by not being able to just knee-jerk to the things that I know are always going to work.”
A day in the life of South Carolina football’s chef
Abby Pilla, the football team’s designated performance chef, clocks into the facility even before the players at 6 a.m. to begin breakfast preparation. She and several student assistants serve breakfast six days at week, which includes a classic buffet, an omelet bar and a breakfast sandwich bar. It’s the meal players are most superstitious about, Pilla said, so she brings the exact same options on road trips too.
The athletes are so consistent in their morning routines that Pilla often has upperclassmen’s orders memorized.
“Xavier Legette will go through the buffet, pick up about five pieces of crispy bacon, bring it up, just give a head nod and walk away. He knows we know to chop that up with scrambled eggs,” Pilla said. “Dakereon Joyner will come up and be like Abby can I have my order? And it’s brown sugar oatmeal and a scramble with turkey sausages, ham, bacon and cheddar cheese.”
Lunch is when Pilla experiments with what the staff calls “action stations.” Options are usually highly customizable so athletes can cater to specific nutrition goals. The stations change daily ranging from flatbread pizza to burritos to Southern comfort, but not everything is a hit. Players were skeptical when Pilla tried poke bowls, but they were wild for sushi rolls she made with the leftovers.
Pilla and her team also give players resources to cook for themselves when they aren’t in the facility. She runs regular cooking demonstrations during winter and spring workouts to get players comfortable with kitchen basics, which she said is one of her favorite parts of the job. Sometimes players will bring Pilla recipes that they find on TikTok, and she will translate those into a workshop to show them how to prepare it.
“I love to share my knowledge and seeing someone else take that on and reap the benefits of it,” she said. “Yeah, totally seeing how like they can level up their performance to with Yeah, the foods that we’re teaching them about or like asking them to like incorporate into their regimen kind of thing. Just seeing how that pays off on the field. Yeah, like even though I play like a small role, but they in a day like that still makes a big difference in how they perform and what they can do later on in their careers.”
How South Carolina football celebrates Thanksgiving
Dickerson’s Thanksgiving planning has to start three to four weeks in advance. The amount of food his staff prepares for the football team alone is staggering: Eight to 12 turkeys weighing 10-12 pounds each, six to eight 10-pound hams, 75-100 pounds of mashed potatoes, nearly 400 dinner rolls, 20 pounds of sweet potato casserole, 30-40 pounds of stuffing, and more than 60 pounds of mac and cheese.
And don’t forget dessert: Eight red velvet cakes, four pumpkin pies and four sweet potato pies.
While Thanksgiving staples are universal, Dickerson said the regional differences in sides or preparation styles can pose a challenge. There are 20 different states represented on the Gamecocks’ 2023 roster, and the performance chefs try to make sure everyone has a little taste of home on the holiday.
“You have your two styles of cranberry sauce because we try to cover if you’re from the North, from the Midwest, from the South. We try to have a little bit for everybody … and sometimes we do wild card stuff,” he said. “Somebody requested oxtail one year. Somebody requested chitlins (cooked pig intestines), and I was like I just want you to know everyone in the dining hall is going to hate you because the whole thing is going to smell like chitlins.”
Dickerson also puts a bit of his personal flair on the traditional dishes. He didn’t grow up having green bean casserole on his Thanksgiving table, so he swaps the usual fried french onion topping for massive chunks of onion rings. He also likes to prep the turkey two ways, though he said it’s always slightly stressful when one version is more popular.
“They often get through a solid 85% of everything,” Dickerson said. “As soon as we get everything to the door, I’m always like, do you guys think that’s enough? You just never know … There have been there have been moments where they’re like, do you guys have any more smoked turkey? And I’m like, so this is really good roasted turkey right here, you would love it. But we’ve been good so far.”
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