“Eat to compete.”
It’s emblazoned on a food and nutrition guide and is a recurring theme that is displayed prominently throughout her social media profiles.
It embodies who Abby Pilla is – and the person she aspires to become.
Equal parts foodie and sports junkie, Pilla is in her element around both.
It’s shaped her much of her life, and laid the foundation for where she is today.
2016 Marian graduate, Pilla spent the fall as a performance nutrition chef at the University of South Carolina.
“I was always playing sports when I was growing up, and I always loved food and cooking food,” Pilla said. “We were watching an old family video, and there’s one of me sitting on the couch and my eyes were glued to the TV, watching an Emeril (Lagasse) cooking show, and I think that kind of started me always wanting to become a chef. “The nutrition part came because of my involvement in sports.”
Pilla did track and field and volleyball in high school, and played basketball and softball growing up.
“I feel like that kind of instilled the nutrition part because I could always tell the difference between when I was feeling well and when I wasn’t,” she said. “This was kind of my introduction on how food could make an impact on my athletic performance.
“With that connection, it was clear that it was super important to me, and something that I felt I needed to pursue.”
Pilla applied to just one college to do just that – Johnson & Wales, in Providence, Rhode Island. There she majored in culinary nutrition.
“I studied cooking, and its connection with health performance. I was able to dive deep into the nutrition science,” Pilla said.
She received her associate in culinary arts after her sophomore year at Johnson & Wales, and did her culinary internship in Italy. Her bachelor’s degree came in culinary nutrition after two additional years and her recently completed internship at South Carolina.
“The restaurant industry and the sports industry are very much alike,” she said. “Even though they have different aspects, they both have that fast-paced, high-energy atmosphere.”
Pilla’s goal is to become a registered dietitian, which will involve a dietetic internship of 1,200 supervised hours in clinical, community and food service.
Taking the next step
She has already been able to take that interest to another level working under Kristin Coggin, the director of football nutrition/director of performance nutrition at The University of South Carolina.
This past fall, Pilla’s responsibilities included creating and executing cooking demonstrations, live action stations, and daily food prep along with quality control.
She assisted in daily nutrition operations and catering events for football and Olympic sports, as well as preparing NCAA compliant meals for Division I football players and designing pre- and post-workout products for student-athletes.
Pilla has also conducted menu writing, planning, and the development of nutrition education materials for performance nutrition.
Her first project was a virtual cooking demo over Zoom with South Carolina’s softball team.
“The biggest thing working with the players is that they can be some of the pickiest eaters,” Pilla said. “They are very simple; they like certain things. But one of the biggest challenges was developing that rapport with them. They were all around the same age as me, and it’s hard in that situation to get people to think you are an authority figure.
“So I just tried to really get to know them, and let them know that I was there to fuel them and give them that edge.”
Competing in the rugged SEC, the South Carolina football team is always looking for a leg up against its competition.
Pilla showed that healthy nutrition is beneficial, especially as the team continued to work through the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, completing all 10 of its scheduled games during the regular season.
“The team was very interested across the board in trying to have every advantage possible,” she said. “They are always thinking about their future in sports, and how nutrition can carry them to those new opportunities. And it’s also an essential skill for life after sports, just eating healthy and fueling yourself for day-to-day activities.”
During the football season, Pilla traveled with the team to all of its away games – which included trips to The Swamp at Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and LSU’s Death Valley in Baton Rouge – where she was on the sidelines. At the hotel, players would always have the same meal on Friday and Saturday, something Pilla was tasked with getting ready.
“I thought that was something cool that I was able to be a part of, fueling them on the road,” she said. The dietitians would get to the game ahead of time and set up quick foods for pregame.
“There were a lot of little things that people might not think about, but it does make a big difference.
“During the game, I would kind of roam around the sideline with any snacks the players might need along with hydration shots. That was our main priority to make sure they were hydrated. After the game, we would cater the postgame meal. If it was on the road, we would kind of find something close that was able to deliver and then we would set that up.”
A growing audience
On the sideline, Pilla also made appearances on national television working with players.
Pilla had started an Instagram page (buonabbytito) when she was a senior in high school to feature her skills and interests. Splashed with a variety of colorful dishes, Instagram, along with her Facebook page, blog and LinkedIn profile, has served as a portfolio in her pursuit to combine the two things she is most passionate about, while also expanding her own brand.
“Back in March, kind of right when the pandemic started, I was sent home from school, but I had to get an internship,” said Pilla. She did a virtual career fair and a chat box for the University of South Carolina popped up.
“I did a Zoom interview, and they offered me the internship, and I started in August. This kind of shifted me out of the restaurant kitchen scene. I wanted to focus more with sports because that was a big part of my lifelong passion. This career kind of married both of those together.”
Pilla has returned to Columbia, South Carolina, after accepting a full-time position with the football team.
“The team has its assistant coaches, the head coach, all the support staff, and I’m the culinary coach,” she said. “So I’m there in a way to kind of show them that coaching can come in a different form with the cooking classes that I will be doing.
“The fall was kind of about focusing on fueling them through the whole season; now spring practice will be a time to get them ready, and nutrition really comes into play.”
Pilla will be doing cooking demos with the players, either one-on-one or in large groups.
“This helps to improve their culinary skills but also educate them on nutrition,” she said. “Especially for the new recruits and freshmen coming in, you want to be in conversation with them about nutrition and work with them more hands-on, rather than just giving them a nutrition pamphlet to read.”
A way forward
The opportunities for her career are wide-reaching.
Pilla knows the power that lies within the food she prepares, whether it’s at home for her family or on the road for the Gamecocks football team.
“As a creative, innovative chef and health enthusiast, I strive to educate and demonstrate the importance of food and nutrition as fuel and medicine,” she said. “With my background, I aim to give people the tools they need in order to build healthy habits, appreciate real food, and to ultimately live a balanced lifestyle.”
And she seems to have struck the perfect balance.
“This internship impacted my career aspirations the best way possible,” Pilla said. “Because I was able to learn firsthand how the impact of a chef can have on someone’s health and performance. It’s definitely a lot of hours and a grind.
“But if it’s something you love to do, you’ll never work a day in your life. I love cooking, I love sports, and my job never feels like work because I love what I’m doing.”
Marian High School graduate Abby Pilla is currently serving as the Performance Nutrition Chef for the University of South Carolina football team. Pilla, center, is shown with the Gamecocks nutrition staff prior to a game this season at LSU. CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS
Chef Abby teaches South Carolina offensive lineman Dylan Wonnum how to make a citrus garlic sauce for his salmon dish.
Pasta Action Station
Plating the finishing touches to main entree, sous vide seared duck breast, parsnip purée, roasted Romanesco, cherry wine reduction, and toasted buckwheat.
Abby Pilla at Quaratine graduation May 2020
Recovery Ramen Bowl Action Station
Emily and Abby Pilla at first home game of the season
Williams Brice Stadium
Poke Bowl Zoom Cooking Demo with Gamecocks Softball
Rocky Road Bites
Abby Pilla, center, and her family pose with South Carolina’s mascot during a game last season. From left are her father, Joe; mom, Louise; and sister, Emily. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Jerri & Steve Spurrier Indoor Practice Facility
Gameday Locker Room Recovery Snack Station