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“Oh Canada!” Part Two: Our Conversation with Scotiabank Arena’s Culinary Director, Chris Zielinski

In Part One of Johanna’s interview with Chris Zielinski they discussed Scotiabank Arena’s impressive lineup of plant-based menu offerings. Here, they explore the impact of being an NBA Champions’ arena and also feature Chris’s recipe for a popular vegan item!

Johanna: How have things changed since the Raptors became NBA Champions? Is your attendance up?

Chris Zielinski: (Laughs.) So okay, our attendance was never an issue here. For the Maple Leafs, it’s been 20 years of straight sell-outs. For the Raptors it’s been probably nine years or so of straight sell-outs. So we can’t get any more people in! Tickets are even a little hard to come by.

So it hasn’t changed our status in terms of ticket sales, but what it has changed is that the city hasn’t had a champion since the Blue Jays did it back in 1993. That’s a long time ago. So really, it was the entire COUNTRY, it wasn’t just the city.

As we got deeper into the playoffs, every city in Canada was having a watch party of some sort. In Montreal and Vancouver, they were getting like 10,000 people to watch the game together in squares and in parks. It’s become a Canadian thing, not just a Toronto thing. And you know what? No matter where you go in the country now, there are people draped in all things Raptors.

They became the national team.

And there were people who were saying, ‘oh this will never happen’ and if you read any of the American media like ESPN or other websites, they’ve pretty much always counted us out when it comes to basketball. They’re always kind of like, “yeah, well, they’re pretty good.” You know? So it’s really kind of changed the dynamic with the way people view our program here. And the way we treat our athletes.

Speaking of athletes and nutrition, in an effort to try to mimic what goes on in Europe with the big soccer teams over there where they all have their own academies and they’re training talent from a very young age . . . we created our own academy about seven years ago. Within two years we were in the playoffs, and within four years, we won the championship.

Part of that program is that we manage every part of what our athletes eat. We manage their intake with their trainers, making sure they get the right food. I work with the trainers and we also hired a chef who is really skilled, someone who really understands food well, and we started managing all the meals they eat while they’re at home in the city.

Ah. That then begs the question: have you seen James Cameron’s documentary The Game Changers?

I’ve heard of it.

That’s a must-see for you. Professional, high-level, very accomplished athletes, all across the board, talk about why they are on a plant-based diet, what they eat, and how it affects their performance. It became the best-selling documentary of all time on iTunes less than one week after it launched, just a few weeks ago.

Cool! I look forward to watching that.

We do have a few athletes who are on a plant-based diet, but we’re not really allowed to talk about the specifics of each player. Not because they’re not proud to eat that way; it’s just personal information.

With all of our teams, we are controlling what the athletes are eating, and I mean that in the most positive way. We’re giving them the food they like, but we’re doing it in the healthiest way possible.

I can tell you that on all sides, there are different players with different ideas, and different trainers with different ideas, and we honor them all. We do our best to make sure that nobody feels like they have to leave this building to get anything else. When athletes come here for the first time, they’re blown away by what we offer them.

Which leads me back to your plant-based menu options…

You know, there is no part of the building now where you can’t get a vegan meal. Literally, in any part of the building, you can get one version or another of plant-based food within like two sections of where you are.

That’s great, because that continues to be an issue in most venues.

And that shouldn’t be the case. People should not have to look, or have to ask a bunch of questions. This is why we have a guide that lists Vegetarian, Kosher, and Vegan items which is at every stand. In the event that they wander up to a stand that doesn’t have anything, they can just pull the card up and see all the options that are out there. It’s a pride thing for us.

Yeah, and good, because the more awareness, the more sales you’ll generate.

And why would we want to exclude anyone?

Also, it’s taking off. The demographics are changing, fans are changing, the demand is changing.

Yeah, people are changing.

That’s right. And there’s a recent study that shows that the more plant-based options offered on a menu, the more ALL of the items in that category sell.

Our sports bar has probably 10 vegan items on there. That’s a big shift.

Sometimes, it’s hard to get chefs to go outside of what they know. If you aren’t a vegetarian, it’s sometimes hard to rationalize what constitutes a good meal. So here’s one example: at our restaurant E11even. It’s at street level and open every day for business, so we do a lot of business for lunch. We’ve noticed the more of these items we offer, the more our demographic tends to shift away from steaks and burgers, to people who are eating a lot healthier.

So I told the chefs, “I need to challenge you guys, and I need you to come up with the next good vegan dish. And we’re not going to say on the menu that it’s vegan!” I didn’t want anyone to know. I want people to order it because it’s scrumptious. I mean, obviously you need to use certain catch-phrases and words that people are already attracted to.

We came up with these Sweet Potato Taquitos with an avocado puree and a corn and pepper relish on top. It’s a completely vegan dish. And it sells like CRAZY.

Thanks for sharing the recipe with us! It looks delicious.

😋 LINK to the Sweet Potato Taquitos recipe!

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