As the Washington Commanders aim for the Super Bowl, Connor McGuire prepares the players’ super bowls.
Serving as executive chef at the team’s training center in Ashburn, McGuire leads his own team of 12 in preparing meals for the players — some of whom consume more than 5,000 calories daily.
“Every single day, the dishes change,”McGuire, 34, explains. “So at the stir-fry today, it was Korean barbecue chicken. Yesterday, we did honey-walnut shrimp. Tomorrow, we’re doing a chicken chorizo bowl.”
The facility’s state-of-the-art kitchen contains everything from a wok station to a brick oven for pizza to a custom pasta extruder.
“This is one of the best kitchens I’ve worked in … and I’ve worked in some real nice ones,” McGuire says. “But we have all the bells and whistles, all the toys.”
Where do players bestow their most glowing reviews? “Our miso-marinade Chilean sea bass with a soy-ginger glaze,” McGuire answers.
Vegetables also are a hit. “We’re not just serving steamed broccoli,” he says. “We actually impart flavor into it: different spices, aromatics, ginger, garlic, a lot of herbs, lemon juice, vinaigrettes. Guys will say, ‘I never used to eat vegetables!’”
Even for athletes who eat more for business than pleasure, McGuire still makes an impression. Case in point: A former tight end for the team nearly upset his domestic bliss by comparing his wife’s cooking (not favorably) to McGuire’s.
He used to say that he could eat anything out of the garbage and it wouldn’t matter,” McGuire recalls. “He just ate for the sustenance. He even used to blend egg whites into a smoothie, just so he could get calories in faster. Then after about two years with the team, he said he would tell his wife when she cooked, ‘That’s not how chef Connor would do it at work! I can’t eat this!’ I told him, ‘Thank you so much, but you really shouldn’t tell your wife that.’”
McGuire’s passion for food began in high school, with his mother’s side of the family cooking large Italian meals. While attending Virginia Tech, he started cooking for his friends’ football tailgates, especially after getting a smoker one Christmas.
Despite being raised in the Washington area, McGuire was originally a fan of the local team’s NFC East rival. Because his father originally hailed from Syracuse, New York, McGuire grew up supporting the Philadelphia Eagles, whose quarterback from 1999 to 2009, Donovan McNabb, attended Syracuse University. When McNabb joined Washington in 2010, “I switched sides,” McGuire says.
That same year, he graduated with a degree in consumer foods and worked a series of jobs at various restaurants in the greater DC area. While working at Northwest Washington’s BLT Steak in 2013, the restaurant’s head chef was hired as the Washington football team’s executive chef and brought McGuire along as a sous chef. McGuire was promoted to executive chef in 2018.
This resulted in some drastic changes to his schedule, to say the least.
“The team is in here early, and they leave late. It’s a full-time gig,” he says. “Breakfast starts at 6:30 in the morning. It takes an hour, an hour and 15 minutes or so, to get everything prepped and ready. And it takes me about an hour to get here! [McGuire lives in Vienna, by the Dunn Loring Metro stop.] So I wake up around 4 a.m. and arrive here around 5 a.m.”
Did he realize those would be the hours when he took the job?
“Um, no,” he laughs. “I came from the restaurant world, where you’d be leaving [work] closer to 4 a.m.”
Accordingly, his circadian rhythm has changed through the years, which brings its own small pleasures, such as being more attuned to his hardworking clientele.
“[Cornerback] Kendall Fuller, I know exactly what time he’s coming and how he likes his eggs, early every single morning, so I’ll cook it before I see him,” McGuire says. “He’ll make eye contact and go, ‘My man!’”
The training facility’s 12-person food preparation team includes McGuire himself, two sous chefs, five cooks, three dishwashers, and one utility person. They’re all full-time team employees, and the job is year-round — not just September to January, when the regular season runs.
They try to source local food whenever possible, for example, buying chickens from Living Pastures Farm in Marshall. But you can’t get more local than the garden the team’s chefs created right outside the facility.
The garden, which they plant from seeds, is the brainchild of a sous chef named Jaron, who actually brought up the proposal in his initial job interview. Depending on the season, they grow tomatoes, peppers, herbs, lettuce, mesclun, cucumbers, squash, radishes, and beets.
It’s all part of a health-focused mindset that’s central to the food operations of a multibillion-dollar organization for which success truly depends on employee health and wellness.
“Restaurants often finish things with butter: Vegetables are sautéed and steaks are basted in butter or heavy cream sauces. It can impart a lot of flavor onto a steak. We don’t do that here,” McGuire explains. “So I’ve got to make sure that steak still gets a lot of flavor. There’s a lot of manipulation that goes on to get that.”
Other health concerns are player-specific. “Some guys on the team have dietary restrictions, for health or performance reasons. Maybe they’re dairy-free; maybe they’re gluten-free; maybe they’re allergic to shellfish,” McGuire says. “So if we make mashed potatoes, those have milk in them. There are a few guys who are dairy-free, so we’ll also make olive oil mashed potatoes.”
If a certain player isn’t “making weight” one week or needs a performance boost, McGuire collaborates with team nutritionist and assistant strength and conditioning coach Jake Sankal to give the player more protein or pasta, to bulk him up before the next game.
The foods at the facility have gotten more international under McGuire’s leadership. He’s traveled to Colombia, Brazil, Thailand, and parts of Europe, and tries to incorporate cuisines from his travels.
For example, he began making Colombia’s arepa Boyacense, a corn-batter quesadilla with a sweet ricotta cheese center. From Belgium, he makes waffles “liège style,” using a thick dough instead of batter.
“We have several cooks and employees from El Salvador, where pupusas are a huge thing,” McGuire says of the country’s national dish, a flatbread that often includes pork, cheese, or beans. “So we tried making those, and the players went crazy. They said, ‘We have to have these in here every week.’”
One of McGuire’s favorite parts of the job is getting to know the players and team officials, imparting his culinary wisdom to the uninitiated.
“The great thing about the dining room is everyone sits with everyone else,” McGuire says. “You see offensive guys sit with defensive guys; you see coaches sit with scouts; you see equipment guys sit with players. And they’ll ask me, ‘Was that cilantro in there? Was that pickle in there?’”
McGuire says that players who arrive from other teams routinely say that the Commanders’ food is much better than the offerings at their prior team’s facilities.
“That’s something I’m very proud of,” McGuire smiles. “And [I’m] very proud of my team.”
But McGuire admits that, like the team that employs him, his record isn’t perfect. “We try and fail all the time here, but that’s a part of growing, a part of learning. We need to do that to learn how to improve. And the buckwheat was awful,” he laughs. “We just couldn’t get the texture right.”
McGuire also attends all the home games, preparing food for team owner Daniel Snyder along with Snyder’s guests, family, and friends in the owner’s suite.
McGuire’s fame expanded when the NFL Network filmed a segment primarily focused on him, titled “What Goes into Feeding an NFL Team?” To date, it’s earned more than 9 million YouTube views.
“Whenever I tell people my job, they always think I’m bragging, so I’ve learned to tone it down,” McGuire says. “I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I’m the executive chef for the Washington Commanders, I guess.’”
McGuire has been invited to join fantasy football leagues by friends but always declines. “You don’t want a situation at work where a player comes in and you say, ‘Hey, I need you to give me 10 more yards next week.’”
His main hobbies outside the kitchen are anything outdoors, including biking, camping, and jogging. But on the rare occasion when he is inside, does he watch cooking competition shows?
“I’ll watch Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, but the competition shows give me too much anxiety,” McGuire says. “I’d rather watch something like Alton Brown’s Good Eats.”
So what’s a “good eat” he would recommend himself?
What’s the best fast-food chain? That is the easiest question ever. There’s no competition,” McGuire declares emphatically. “Popeyes.”
And a final question, the topic of conversation that has loomed so large in the greater DC area these past few months that even non-sports-fans have weighed in on it: What are his thoughts on the team’s new name, the Commanders?
“I really enjoy the name,” McGuire answers, “and especially what the name is going to represent once we win the Super Bowl next year.”