It’s fair to say Chef Anthony Zamora’s dining clientele are in a league of their own. Like… quite literally. With a roster of 17 professional basketball players and a support staff of over 30 members, Anthony’s world and menu revolve around fueling elite athletes. But as Anthony says, it feels more like a family.
And while we’re refraining from mentioning said team’s exact name for persnickety NBA licensing reasons, let’s say they hail from the only state to start with a “U” – but originally started in New Orleans, hence the musically derived name. (Those were some pretty big hints, so hope we’re all on the same page… er, court.)
As a chef and registered dietitian, Anthony implements a “stealthy-healthy” method to keep players excited about food. And as potential playoffs approach, we caught up with Anthony for Spiceology’s Periodically Inspired interview series that takes a deep dive into a chef’s creative side, approach to menus, their favorite things, and more. Read the full interview and get to know Anthony Zamora, RD below:
How is cooking for a team of elite athletes different from any other type of cooking?
“The cool part about being with a team is that these guys become your family. You know their orders, likes, dislikes – it’s very personal and tight. I travel with them on the road, I probably see the team more than my actual family. And these guys – they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. It’s really all about the relationship I build with each player and the staff.”
People around you, music, books, travel, research – where do you find inspiration when you create new dishes?
“I love to ask each player about their hometowns and where they grew up. If they’re from Houston – they’re loving southwest vibes. I then challenge myself on how I can put a healthy spin on that. Also, the cool part about traveling with the team is that we go to 28 other cities and tend to stay at nice properties; I work closely with the chefs at those hotels on the menus for the team. We’re all students of life – any person you meet, we’ll learn from each other – it goes back to relationships and being a good person and humble.”
When did you first find a love of cooking?
“My Dad is from Monterey, Mexico and my Mom’s from Michigan. My Mom taught me about cooking with love and getting excited about ingredients and flavor combos. It’s cool to look back now and I see her influence in my cooking today.”
What’s your dish ideation and creation process?
“It’s a fun challenge, but different depending on if we’re at home or on the road. During the season I’m responsible for so many consecutive meals, including sourcing everything and coordinating with restaurants on the road.
When we’re playing home games, I’m giving them two to three protein options and we always make a daily special like grilled chicken with burrata and fresh basil. That dish also had zucchini noodles and pasta noodles mixed half and half to sneak in the stealthy healthy. So, yeah we have a rotating special, plus an all-day menu. My guys they’ve been loving sticky rice and king salmon with a miso bbq glaze. We always do a veggie medley to make sure we’re taking care of what’s underneath the hood.
On the road I’m talking to the hotels and restaurants and going over each banquet menu then talking with the chef and specifically asking them if they wrote this menu. Asking the chefs what they’re passionate about – I want to see and experience their soul in the food because that passion and love will come across to my guys. You can have a perfect meal plan, but if there’s no love in cooking – it’s all out the window (because your guy won’t eat the food and get all those calories you planned for). I’m challenging and collaborating with the chefs in each away city to see if we can create excitement and passion in the menu and get the team excited about eating the food. For post-game meals we really try to support local restaurants, especially during Covid – it’s been great.”
How do you help the team manage off season eating?
“When you look at the diversity – from background and age – you might have an adolescent who doesn’t know how to make toast and then guys in their 30s with a family and maybe have already worked with dietitians to build their own knowledge and skills around fueling their bodies. Depending on where they’re at in life, I’ll help support them accordingly.
For rookies, we do cooking classes with them, grocery store tours, how to use Instacart, even how to order healthier foods off Uber Eats. I do summer visits with players to show them tips and tricks and methods, little things they can do. These players are expending a high amount of energy, and they’re more concerned with getting enough calories in them than if they have a balanced plate. I remind them: color, carb, and protein. Last year we compiled a “Quarantine Cookbook” the players could use and reference – I’d love to continue that. I’d also love to visit the players more during the summer, workout with them, hang, put on music and go cook together. It’s about the camaraderie and family feeling – it’s deeper than just the sport.”
What is your ethos about balancing nutrition and flavor?
“It’s a blessing to cook for athletes. The main electrolyte they lose is salt, and it takes a lot of salt to make a potato taste good. It’s really fun to be able to season how I like to because they also need it. On the a la carte menu I tend to use ingredients that hold flavor better and then add layers of flavor with sauces on the side.”
How do you approach keeping things interesting and catering to each player’s palettes during the season?
“Here’s a great example – this morning one of my guys texted me just one word: “greatness.” Which I know that means he’s wanting oatmeal, french toast and turkey bacon; we’re at the level where players can make special requests. I’m constantly taking feedback and recs from all of the players and staff. I’m listening to their wants and needs, I actually have a mental rolodex of their likes and dislikes and they appreciate those little things and when you remember. I know them enough to know what to anticipate and they appreciate it.”
Where are places you visit or what are things you do if you’re ever in a creative block?
“I love going to new restaurants. I also lean on my mentors – I’ll hang out with Alberto Vazquez at his mobile kitchen in L.A. and visit and talk with him. By the way his gremolata is off the chain (laugh). During the basketball bubble, I met Certified Master Chef Shawn Loving who is out of Detroit and most recently was the dean for a culinary school there. I’ve visited him at the school and took classes – just chopping it up with teenagers and attending lectures. I was having fun exploring and getting into a new space where you have to think differently or you see someone else thinking differently. It’s inspiring, and I want to visit them and bring my staff next time. Also, my wife, Fleet, saves me a lot when I have a block and I can’t go anywhere. She’s a rockstar – I just show up (laughs).
Do you change up the menu during playoff games or finals?
“I’m asking myself what extra thing I can do to give them an edge. Every game day, how can I help them recover faster and then at the same time keep what’s working routine. Now that we’re vaccinated the players are eating together again, which is a game changer. Before we all had to eat alone.”
How do you experiment with flavor?
“I challenge myself to experiment. Last week I was looking at the spice wall and decided to crush up fennel and mix with salt – it’s awesome on everything. I seem to always be using the Over Easy blend on breakfast potatoes, and Moss and Oh Canada goes on most of our chicken. Creativity comes in waves, and I get a lot of inspiration from my Sous Chef Ben Maldonado – aka Dr. Ben – he comes up with great combos.”
Do you feel competitive with other chefs?
“No, I feel competitive with my staff, but in a fun way. If I move faster, it will raise them to model my behavior. I’m floating to help other people on projects and challenging my staff about what’s exciting. It’s a collaborative competition and I think that’s so good.”
What flavor or menu trends are you seeing in pro sports diets?
“When you look at the level of these athletes, trends will be more relationship based. Give them something you know they’ll like with a little twist – that “stealth health.” If I have octopus on the menu now, the majority of the players are jacked-up excited; we’ve been able to develop an exciting food program. I’m in a position to try new things and combine fine dining / gastro / and sports nutrition and to just make it fun.”
What’s one of your favorite ingredients to cook with and why?
“(Laughs) It’s a fun question because I love everything. I’m going with eggs – especially Forage Creek Ranch eggs. The egg is just super sexy, and I’m always happy with an egg sandwich. A little Laughing Cow and a soft scramble – that’s my all day any day. Also, just the versatility of eggs; for athletes the yolk is a micro nutrient-dense powerhouse. And of course there’s that pleasurable popping of the yolk – it’s sloppy. I like sloppy food.”
What’s a technique or trick you learned along the way that even home cooks could use?
“A lot of home cooks are sleeping on the fact that they can sear fish and then finish it in the oven, especially if it’s a thick piece.”
What do you consider a chef’s role to be within the team?
“It’s so cool because it’s multi-faceted with my background as a registered dietitian. There are different sides from counseling, behaviour change and making choices – it’s the human element. I want a player to walk in here and I’ll take care of them – they don’t have to think about anything. The players have their job – it’s mine to explore how I can support that. On the road I’m a food cheerleader. I’m reviewing menus and restaurants, quality controlling buffets and getting everyone excited about fueling their bodies. I feel responsible for how I put other people in a place to succeed; I try to be a leader and educate my staff, and empower them to get uncomfortable in order to learn and be the best versions of themselves.”
Favorite dish to cook for yourself?
“I have a soft spot for making my own pizza, right now Bricks Corner is a Detroit-style pizza place and I really just want their pizza now. Also, any type of sandwich – there’s a great James Beard quote: ‘too few people understand a really good sandwich.’ That quote speaks to me.”
Favorite dish to cook for friends and family?
“Mashed potatoes and using the potato starch water so you don’t feel as heavy after eating. All kinds of potatoes, crack potatoes. Also, glazed king salmon that’s ooey gooey. Really anything I can do with love. And I’ll hit it hard on the garnish game.”
What’s a spice you consider under-valued?
“Fennel – it can go on so many things.”
What are your breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurant recs when in Salt Lake City?
“Have breakfast at Publik Kitchen or The Park Cafe, lunch at Feldman’s Deli or Bricks Corner – that great Detroit pizza place – and dinner at Pago or Manoli’s, Greek and Mediterranean food with a twist.”
Keep tabs or drop Anthony a line over on Instagram.