To paraphrase Dave Barry, the stomach is the most important organ in the human body. The heart is fine and dandy, but it is not nearly as satisfied by a slice of pizza. Without a stomach, armies would not be able to march and the heart of a man would be unreachable.
Dean Pigeon (pronounced Pea-jean) of Pigeon Caterers has been taking care of the bellies of the world champion New Orleans Saints at their facility on Airline Highway since the spring of 2001. Pigeon provides meals and snacks to the Saints players, coaches, staff and administrators throughout the year, but his season really picks up during training camp, when Pigeon serves 150 breakfasts, 250 lunches, and 175 dinners a day, all the while keeping the larders stocked with ice creams, fruits, snacks and the players’ favorite chocolate chip cookies.
Pigeon has spent nearly his whole life in the food industry, but it was through luck of the draw that he ended up as the caterer for the Saints. One day in 2000, Pigeon found himself catering a luncheon at Rummel High School with some higher-ups from the Archdiocese in attendance. This being New Orleans, “I got a call the next day from someone at the luncheon saying their daughter worked for the Saints and they were looking for a caterer. A couple interviews later, I got the job,” Pigeon says.
The dining hall of the Saints would make any high school jealous. A long buffet anchors one end. Black tables and chairs line down the hallway, and flat screens tuned to ESPN adorn the wall. Large coolers hold juice, sports drinks, Häagen-Dazs bars and other goodies. But Pigeon says it was not always this luxurious, “There was no cafeteria when we started. There was a basketball court that the team put a tent over. You’d come in here and the ketchup would be bubbling in the bottles due to the heat.”
Cooking for men who burn thousands of calories in one practice presents a unique set of challenge. Under previous head coach Jim Haslett, fried foods were verboten. Now, coach Sean Payton tells Pigeon fried chicken is okay, just make sure there is baked chicken also available. Other nearly indispensible elements of New Orleans cooking like butter and heavy cream sit on the sidelines while turkey breasts, whole wheat pasta and salads see the field.
Whether it is a kid in grammar school or a college-aged kid in a dining hall, every cafeteria-goer has one meal that is their favorite. At the Saints facility, sandwich day brings out everyone in droves. Pigeon and his crew will set up countless stations so each person can make his or her own sandwich, panini, or yes, even a po-boy, which is a point of pride for Pigeon. “I got them eating po-boys now. They used to say, ‘What is this? A sub?’ Now they ask for a shrimp po-boy.”
In a typical day during the season, Pigeon will go through 75 pounds of fresh fruit, 50 pounds of starches, including rice and potatoes, 200 chocolate chip cookies, 200 chicken breasts, 40 turkey breasts, and 50 pounds of red meat. He gets special requests from the players as well. Reggie Bush is a well-documented junk food hound. He’ll ask Pigeon to go down the street and get him four foot-long Sonic Dogs. The requests don’t stop with players. Saints owner Tom Benson has called upon Pigeon’s services to cater private events or locate a bottle of Silver Oak when the mood calls for celebrating. The one general rule is the bigger the player, the better they eat. “The skinny guys, like wide receivers and cornerbacks, they love bacon. Bigger guys won’t touch it,” Pigeon says.
Besides providing breakfast and lunch, Pigeon provides the coaches with dinner each night. Monday nights are steak nights where each coach gets his steak cooked the way he wants. On other nights, Pigeon may pick up hamburgers from the Harbor, or Italian from Impastato’s. But every Thursday, it is pizza night in the film room. During last year’s miraculous run to 13-0, those Thursday night pizza orders came strictly from Rotolo’s under direct orders from Coach Payton. The reason why was an example of Payton’s notorious superstitious ways, “That was where we ordered from the Thursday before week one,” Pigeon says.
Pigeon, a lifelong Saints fan, is not without his own superstitions, some of which include driving a precise route to the game, wearing the same shirt, and cleaning his house when things aren’t going well. It is this dedication to the Saints through thick and thin that earned him the greatest tip any food service worker in this town could ever get: a Super Bowl ring, the most gorgeous creation in Tiffany’s history (in this writer’s opinion).
Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams, an NFL journeyman, claims the Saints have the best food service program in the NFL. Sportscasters and scouts have spent months dissecting why and how the Saints won the Super Bowl. But the answer is simple: the New Orleans Saints have the stomach of a champion.