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The 225 University of Florida athletes who lunched today at Old Ebbitt Grill arrived 15 minutes late, which meant that the cooks and servers had 15 fewer minutes to get this massive crew in and out the door. It was a damn impressive performance in the kitchen and on the dining room floor.
Along the main, two-tier stainless-steel counter in the kitchen, cooks worked in an assembly-line fashion. Dishes started at one end: Cooks would add one thing or another (roasted potato slices, coleslaw) to a plate already loaded down with two entrees —- an eight-ounce burger and a chicken sandwich —- until the plate reached the end of the counter, where servers would pick it up for a trip to the dining room.
The servers were practically circus performers. With red cloth napkins draped across their left arms, waiters stacked four hot plates —- that’s right four —- on their appendage, carrying a fifth in their right hand. Carrying five plates at a time, the wait staff had all 225 students, coaches, friends, and hangers-on served within 20 minutes of sitting down. “It’s managed chaos,” one waitress told me in the kitchen, “but it all works.”
Out in the sunny Atrium, under a fake palm tree, coach Urban Meyer and Heisman-winning quarterback Tim Tebow both sported suits for the special occasion, which was actually not this meal at the Ebbitt. They were in town for an appearance at the White House, where President Obama would honor them for winning the national college football championship. Tebow is a surprisingly massive dude, much wider than you’d expect. He looks more like a fullback than a quarterback. His blue, pin-striped three-piece suit hung loosely on his large frame.
Tebow, Meyer, and the rest of the team chowed on their lunch. They chowed in the Atrium, they chowed in the bar, and they chowed anywhere else the Ebbitt could place them. (The teams didn’t, however, chow in the main dining room, which was reserved for regular customers.) Despite the double-entree meal, some complained about the lack of food. “A few were saying, ‘Is this all we get to eat today?’,” said server Alex Schamis.
By 12:15 p.m. —- a mere 45 minutes after arriving —- the U of F contingent was filing out the door. Yours truly, sporting an Old Ebbitt Grill chef’s coat, stood at attention as the players walked to their buses idling at the curb. I asked several how they liked their meals. They were polite boys. To a man, they all said it was excellent.
“The burger was particularly good,” said one large specimen of a human being.
He said that despite the fact his burger was cooked medium well. In fact, all the burgers were cooked medium well, said chef Robert McGowan. With 225 patties to deal with, grillman Robert Plowden, a 33-year veteran of the Ebbitt, just didn’t have time to cook each to order.
Besides, as McGowan pointed out to me, these are college students. They’re used to fast-food burgers, which almost by definition are cooked to death.