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Delon Wright grabs lunch in the cafeteria of the Toronto Raptors training facility on Dec. 18, 2018.

Mark Blinch

It’s 11 a.m. on a December morning, and as the Toronto Raptors begin practice, Ryan Gallagher is hard at work right above them, well into phase two of his day.

Gallagher is chopping vegetables in a professional-grade kitchen on the second floor of the Raptors’ state-of-the-art practice facility at Exhibition Place, a couple of kilometres west of Scotiabank Arena. This kitchen is as well-equipped as one in a top restaurant, and its chef has a deep culinary résumé. He’s had personal-chef gigs, cooked in prominent Toronto-area restaurants and competed on the reality show Top Chef Canada.

An elaborate breakfast – offering items such as made-to-order omelettes, smoothies and whole-grain French toast – has already been served and cleared. Now, Gallagher is prepping for hungry players and team staff to filter upstairs for another meal after practice. They’ll fill their lunch plates inside a large bright dining room whose tall windows overlook the practice courts on one side and Lake Ontario on the other.

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Chef Ryan Gallagher poses for a picture in the kitchen of the Raptors training facility.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

In the modern NBA, with glossy training facilities full of player amenities and high-tech equipment, no detail is too small when it comes to helping players develop and thrive. This inviting meal and social space is a central hub of daily life inside the Raptors training home, and this team puts major emphasis on fuelling up here with foods geared to optimize performance.

Gallagher’s mandate as team chef at the facility is to prepare training-day meals and snacks for some 15 players and 40 staff using the healthiest, highest-quality organic ingredients possible.

“We’re working with elite athletes, and we want to put the best in to get the best out,” says Gallagher, who was hired when the Raps’ practice facility opened in early 2016. “I know lots of great suppliers, and I’m not ordering truffles or foie gras for the team, but I need high-quality nutritious ingredients that help the players feel good and play well. Food is only one small part of their performance obviously, and they’re grown men who can choose to eat what they want. But we try to give them everything they need to make good food choices.”

Chef Ryan Gallagher collaborates with team nutritionist Jennifer Sygo on meal-planning.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

The meals need to be convenient and healthy without being boring. The team’s cultural palates are incredibly diverse, with players from Europe, Africa and North America. So offering lots of menu options and international variety is crucial to inspiring the players and staff to eat this nutritious stuff instead of seeking out high-calorie restaurant food.

“When I first saw it, I thought, ‘Wow, what a great setup. These guys are pretty spoiled here in Toronto’. I’m not saying that we didn’t have a nice setup in San Antonio, but here in Toronto, this is really next-level,” said Danny Green, whom the Raptors acquired from the Spurs in the off-season along with Kawhi Leonard.

“I wasn’t a huge healthy-food guy coming here, so it took me a while mentally to get on board. But I started eating here, and it tastes like the food that I like, but it’s made so much healthier and all organic, which was new for me. It all tastes so good, so the adjustment was easy. For sure, it keeps many guys from going for takeout, and it saves you time and money. They’re always urging us to take food home with us, too.”

Gallagher leads a kitchen crew of three, and they make everything possible from scratch. That includes sauces, dressings and soup stocks. They make their own jerky from grass-fed, hormone-free, antibiotic-free beef, even hand-made turkey sausages. They create fresh jams out of organic berries and chia seeds, and granolas with gluten-free oats. They even craft a wide variety of homemade hot sauces from peppers Gallagher grows with other veggies and herbs in his garden on the roof of the practice facility.

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Raptors coach Nick Nurse compares Gallagher's work to 'eating at a five-star restaurant every day.'

Mark Blinch

This kind of creativity seems to flow naturally for 40-year-old Gallagher. The Scarborough native and University of Toronto grad was briefly an insurance broker, but his favourite part of the job was entertaining clients at restaurants, where he’d admire the cuisine. Bored after just two years, Gallagher quit his insurance job, cashed out all the stocks he had and enrolled in the chef-training program at Toronto’s George Brown College.

During a part-time job at the Four Seasons, he lucked into working with some big-name Canadian culinary experts, including Lynn Crawford and Alex Chen. He learned a smorgasbord of new skills and went on to cook at several restaurants across the GTA, including Ruby Watchco and Harbour Sixty in Toronto and Spencer’s at the Waterfront in Burlington. Along the journey, the likable chef competed on the Food Network Canada show Top Chef Canada, against 15 others in wild, high-pressure cooking challenges that were scrutinized by executive chefs and celebrity judges. He made it to episode No. 9 of 13.

His eclectic experiences come in handy in his job today, as he keeps the Raptors menu fresh. He offers the team members lots of options. Today’s particular lunch bar is Southern themed. It has steaming trays of mussels with shrimp, okra and mixed veggies, cooked kale, rice and black beans, pork chops and fresh-made applesauce. There are big bowls of chopped fruit and several different salads.

“It’s like eating at a five-star restaurant every day,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse says. “He’s feeding us so often, yet he manages to offer us so much variety. His international flair really fits our team.”

Raptors guard Norman Powell says 'you definitely feel the difference on the court' from eating healthier food.

Mark Blinch

As players and staff arrive and start filling lunch plates and takeout containers, it seems the most popular item of the day is a healthy spin on southern deep-fried chicken and waffles. Gallagher’s waffles are sugar-free and made with whole grains, flaxseed and sweet potato. This kitchen never uses a deep fryer, so the skinless organic chicken is lightly breaded and baked in a convection oven with the fan running to achieve similar crispiness.

In lieu of sugary maple syrup to drizzle on the waffles, wildflower organic honey is offered. There are bowls of naturally sweetened barbecue sauces for the not-fried chicken. The several house-made hot sauces are displayed in hand-labelled squeeze bottles for every possible taste bud, from sweet and smoky to mild to fiery.

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A variety of hot sauces – some store-bought, many made in-house – are available to suit different tastes.

Mark Blinch

“When you’re eating clean, healthy, organic fresh food in the right portions, you definitely feel the difference on the court. I’ve successfully lost weight at times when I needed to. And they helped me to tailor my nutrition while I was injured and didn’t need as many calories,” said Norman Powell, who just returned from a lengthy hiatus with a separated shoulder. “They have a terrific barbecue day, and I look forward to the jerk chicken and mashed potatoes – things we love, but they make them healthier and lighter. I have a shellfish allergy as well, so they help keep me safe from that.”

The menus and ingredients are well-researched and meticulously planned in co-ordination with team nutritionist Jennifer Sygo, who also consults individually with players to customize their dietary needs. She also analyzes their blood work to spot deficiencies. Sygo displays occasional note cards in the dining room, which teach the players quick facts about the health benefits of key superfoods on the menu. An example? “Kale: Rich in calcium for healthy bones and immune system," or “Black Beans: for recovery and digestive health."

“Players are increasingly craving knowledge and wanting to make sense of the latest things they’re reading and hearing about diets and nutrition,” Sygo says. “Players want to know ‘how can my body hold up longer, how can I play more minutes and more seasons and feel more vibrant?’ That’s something I see a lot of guys connecting with now, especially as they near their 30s and beyond.”

Mark Blinch

Sygo's note cards offer the players quick health facts about what they'll be eating.

Mark Blinch

Grab-and-go items are always available to the team during long days at the facility. They go through boxes of bananas and avocados. They have various specialized juices on hand, each customized for specific needs, including preworkout energy, postworkout muscle recovery or to combat colds and flu.

A favourite to-go item is the protein bars they make with ingredients including puffed quinoa, nut butters and veggie protein, and topped with thin dark chocolate – but none of the sugar or additives found in many most store-bought bars. Made in a large pan and sliced in rectangles, these healthy bars look decadent enough for a holiday potluck.

Gallagher and team make a butter chicken with no butter or dairy and skinless baked chicken wings. He’s had sushi on the menu and made healthy versions of various takeout fare, from Middle Eastern food to Vietnamese Pho.

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These protein bars – puffed quinoa, nut butters and veggie protein – are a popular grab-and-go item.

Mark Blinch

“We try to make everything as nutritious as possible, while also considering how tasty it is. If it’s not tasty, the players won’t come; they’ll just go order food and we’ll have no idea what’s going in their bodies then,” Gallagher says. “If we can get them to eat our version of chicken wings, maybe they’re less likely to go grab some at a restaurant. I’d rather they do it here, and hopefully they’ll have some of our green beans on the side, and some sweet potatoes, too.”

Breakfast and lunch are provided when the team is at the facility, and Gallagher urges players to take more food home in to-go boxes for dinner as well. He leaves the fridge well stocked with leftovers for those who return at night for extra shooting and they’re encouraged to help themselves.

Some players also have their own personal chefs to cook for them at home.

Gallagher and his crew provide food for players and staff on all days when the team is in town and training at the facility. If there are staff or players who remain in Toronto to work at the facility while the team is on the road, they cook then, too.

They also cook for the players and staff working during the predraft workouts, the lottery and the draft. Gallagher’s kitchen then shuts down for about six weeks in the off-season while players are away at summer league. They return about two or three weeks before coaches and players arrive so they can start prepping and stocking the kitchen. Gallagher and his parents tend to the garden in the summers.

Chef Ryan Gallagher prepares food in his kitchen at the Raptors practice facility.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

On home-game days, Scotiabank Arena staff provides healthy food for the team in a kitchen attached to the Raptors’ locker room – after morning shoot-around, and before and after the game. Do they offer pregame peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches, like many NBA teams do? Sure, but that’s just one of many options.

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“Nutrition has become a huge part of what most NBA teams do now,” says Greg Monroe, who joined the Raptors this season after playing for Detroit, Milwaukee, Phoenix and Boston. “If you don’t eat right, you feel it, especially with this many games and this much travel. You can’t hide it if you’re not eating right.”

On the road, the team’s charter flights often provide meals and team members eat mostly eat in hotels and restaurants. Gallagher and his crew stay behind in Toronto to cook for the rest of the staff and any injured players staying behind.

Gallagher has an app that allows him to message the team about the daily menu. He also likes to walk around the facility and spread the word in person.

“These basketball players are looking for that little edge, and sometimes it’s nutrition,” Gallagher says. “A lot of different little things can make the difference between being good and being elite.”

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