Feeding the athletic, calorie-burning behemoths who make up an NBA roster is no easy task. Just ask Terry Bell, team chef for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Bell’s been managing the Cavs’ kitchen for the past seven seasons, and he’s constantly challenged to prepare foods that strike the right balance between tasty and healthy. STACK caught up with Bell to find out what it’s like to fuel one of the NBA’s top teams.
A Team Effort
Working out of the kitchen in the Cavs’ sprawling practice facility in Independence, Ohio, Bell makes sure the team is eating right for their intense practices, workouts and games. Each morning during the season, he prepares a full breakfast, including fresh fruit, eggs, turkey sausage, potatoes and oatmeal. After morning activities, the players return for a massive lunch spread that includes lean proteins like chicken or salmon, pasta, vegetables, soup and a gigantic salad bar with, as Bell puts it, “everything you could possibly think of.” Although the exact meals and their timing depend on the team’s schedule, all food service at the facility is overseen by Bell.
Bell uses a buffet format to ensure there’s always something for everyone—no matter how picky a player’s tastebuds might be.
“If guys don’t like something, there are always other options. That’s something I always try to do, I try to have something for everybody and cater to everyone,” Bell says.
But catering to the tastes of players with different personalities—in addition to the team’s large staff—is not always a piece of cake (no pun intended). “There are a lot of likes and dislikes I always have in my mind,” says Bell. “I’ll be brainstorming a dish and think, ‘oh, this guy won’t eat red peppers’ or whatever it may be. You try to be conscious of those things and still appease everybody.”
Bell is also charged with the monumental task of preparing in-air meals for the team’s flights. He says, “There’s about 50 people on the flight we’ve got to feed, and the logistics limit the menu a bit. But we try to give them good stuff even when they’re in the air—stuff like bison burgers or lobster ravioli. We can also keep it basic with peanut butter and jelly or turkey and swiss sandwiches.”
A Fine Line
Bell is not a nutritionist himself, but he consults two nutritionists who occasionally go over his menus and give him suggestions. But after seven years on the job, Bell pretty much has it down. “In your head, you know you have to hit certain basic categories—lean protein, complex carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, etc. So you’re thinking about all of these different things, and the job is to create good-tasting foods within those categories every day,” he says.
One of Bell’s biggest challenges is to provide all of the important nutrients athletes need each day in food preparations the players actually enjoy eating. “It’s a fine line,” he says. “You don’t want to go so crazy healthy that guys get scared away and go eat at the local fast food joint. But you also don’t want to soak everything in butter and make guys feel terrible. You’ve got to find the right balance,” Bell says.
Whenever Bell introduces a food that might have a negative reputation—such as kale or Brussels sprouts—he’s often pleasantly surprised at how readily the team accepts it. “I really wasn’t sure how Brussels sprouts were going to go over the first time I served them, but the guys ended up loving them,” Bell says. “Sometimes, I’ll try to disguise certain foods a little. I’ll add kale to traditional mixed greens, for example. They might not try it if they knew what it was, but they end up liking it.”
Bell also uses simple substitutions to improve the nutritional profile of a dish without significantly changing its taste, such as substituting ground turkey for ground beef.
Although Bell includes trendy super foods like kale, quinoa and steel-cut oats on the menu, he isn’t afraid to give the guys an occasional cheat day. “I’ll put out stuff like fried chicken or mac and cheese from time to time,” he says. “It’s comfort food, kind of a treat, and it goes a long way with them. They’re burning so many calories, they can have foods like that occasionally, and these guys know their bodies.”
The balancing act between tasty and healthy is a challenge, but Bell finds plenty of opportunities to get creative. One of his recent additions to the menu? Homemade jerky. Bell makes it himself and loves that it’s high in protein and all-natural.
“It was a little extra work and I wasn’t sure how it would go over, but the guys loved it. I did beef jerky and turkey jerky,” Bell says. Bell has also experimented with smoking and grilling chicken wings, a healthier twist on the sports bar favorite, which has been a big hit with the team.
The marathon of an NBA season takes a team from the relative relaxation of the pre-season to the cutthroat intensity of the playoffs. Nevertheless, Bell keeps the basic principles of his menu consistent. “Everything pretty much stays constant,” he says. “You don’t want to mess with their routine and try something crazy. Keep with what’s been working all season long and don’t disrupt anything too much.”