Scotiabank Arena is the home arena of the 2019 NBA Champions, the Toronto Raptors. In our interview with Culinary Director Chris Zielinski, we discuss the popularity of their plant-based menu items, their NBA championship, and much more, including a recipe.

Zielinski is the Culinary Director for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), which owns and manages multiple venues in the Toronto area, including Scotiabank Arena, the home arena for the Toronto Raptors and NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs. Zielinski comes with 34 years of experience as a chef. After attending culinary school and training with several top chefs, he worked in casual and fine dining restaurants, as well as the national ballet, before joining MLSE in 2014.

VeggieHappy co-founder Johanna McCloy spoke with Chris Zielinski on October 31. This is Part One of their conversation. (Watch for Part Two next week!)

VH: Hi Chris! So nice to chat with you.

Chris Zielinski: Hi Johanna! I’m so glad we’re doing this.

Why don’t you start by sharing a little bit about your position as the Culinary Director for MLSE. What are your job functions?

Eating! Actually, it’s true. It is kind of my forte. I’m the person who discerns what makes the menus and what doesn’t, because it’s very easy to come up with a great idea, but it’s a lot harder to do it the same every time, over and over, for a year. I oversee all our venues, and we also have five restaurants, which range from sports bars to very fine dining. I manage all the executive chefs, sous chefs and cooks. We have 18 executive chefs and about 350 cooks. It’s an amazing team of people.

When it comes to vegetarian food or vegan food, they LOVE that kind of a challenge. They are so into what’s next and what’s interesting. We’ve pretty much done all we can with meat at this point. Turning vegetables into the center of the plate, and using all the fun new products out there to assist you with that, it’s really become a badge of pride for our chefs.

And what are you finding? How are the items on your plant-based menu selling?

Well, when it comes to plant-based dishes, the Raptors side has a broader fan base. It’s very multi-cultural, more of an even split between men and women, whereas with hockey, that tends to be a lot of dudes. So there are a lot of those sales on the basketball side, and on the soccer side too.

Our outdoor soccer stadium, BMO Field, seats about 30,000 people and I think our percentage of plant-based menu options there is probably the highest of all of the teams. When I’m over there, at least one or two people will stop me and ask me what they can have if they’re vegetarian or vegan. I’m pleased to be able to walk them around and show them all the options, and they’re always blown away, saying, “I had no idea!”

Yeah. That’s why VeggieHappy exists!

Exactly! And you know, we might want to shout from the rooftops, but whatever direction you yell into, you only hit a certain number of ears. Our audience is the entire city. VeggieHappy, you guys, are living in the world where you’re celebrating plant-based foods and stories on a daily basis. The Food and Beverage side of us says YEAH, we love telling these stories.

That’s what motivated us to build a dedicated online guide! Tell me about some of your plant-based menu items that visitors really respond to.

The Beyond Burger has done really well. We were the first ones in Canada to actually have it. A lot of people don’t know that, because A&W jumped onto it about a year later and pretty much shouted it from the roof tops, which did help with our awareness, because then people understood what it was, but I’m not going to lie, it’s one of our top sellers.

One of our partners, Pizza Pizza is a brand that is very Canadian. They’re pretty much in every part of the country, much in the way maybe Little Caesars would be in the U.S. And they’ve really jumped on the bandwagon with their Super Plant Pizza, which is selling really, really well.

I can imagine! We posted the image of the Super Plant Pizza on Instagram.

Yeah, it’s stadium food and it has plant-based meat and dairy-free cheese. And you know what, it’s delicious! It tastes great. It’s been a really hot seller for us.

We also have a long-standing item on our menu. For some background, Toronto is a real melting pot of people; it’s very multi-cultural. I mean virtually everybody in this city eats all the food that the world has to offer. So we’ve had a concept the last couple of years called Sorta-Shawarma and our Crispy Chickpea Shawharma sells like crazy. People love it. We have that here and at BMO Field, and I don’t think we could take it off the menu. It’s become a real go-to snack. There’s a vegan version and a gluten-free version.

Our taco stands here and at BMO Field have vegan options, too. We have a Crispy Cauliflower Taco with pico de gallo on it, and we have a Jackfruit Taco (featured image). They sell really well. People are really enjoying them.

I’ll be sure to submit our BMO listing to VeggieHappy at the start of next season. It’s an outdoor venue and it’s COLD here in the winter, but we have games here and there. Canadians are used to the weather of course, but it’s hard to eat when it’s 28 degrees and the wind is blowing sideways. We’ll have a brand new menu for you next year.

That’d be great! We’d love to add BMO Field to our listings.

One thing that makes Scotiabank Arena different is that we don’t have any buffets in our Premium program. Every arena I’ve been to, and I’ve been to a lot of them, typically has a lot of buffets.

Because we have four premium restaurants in the building, we have a mandate that each restaurant has to have their own plant-based menu, so whatever price range you’re shopping at, we’ve got a special menu, just to make it easy. It has all of the plant-based options on it, and usually we have 4 main dishes to choose from.

That’s been a real win for us on the premium side of things. One thing about people eating healthy, it’s not a choice made by money. People at all levels are looking for the same thing.

Read Part Two of our interview, when Chris shares more about their plant-based menu items, their work with the athletes, Canada’s NBA Championship win, and a recipe for one of Scotiabank Arena’s popular vegan dishes!

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