Ryan Gallagher is the man behind the meals for the defending NBA champions as the Toronto Raptors’ in-house chef, working closely with the team’s medical staff and nutritionist to turn food into fuel for a group of high-performance athletes and the staff around them.
He is also the father of a young daughter and, as it turns out, cooking for her isn’t so different from his day job.
“We do those sort of things here where we slide vegetables in without telling anyone,” Gallagher said during a rare down moment at the Raptors’ practice facility this month, while dicing squash so naturally he can look you in the eye without cutting off a finger.
“I have a seven-and-a-half year-old and I just don’t tell her what food’s made of,” Gallagher said. “I’m all about transparency but sometimes it’s easier not to do that.”
It’s an approach the former personal chef and “Top Chef Canada” contestant has taken since he took charge of the Raptors kitchen when the practice facility opened in 2016.
In his current gig, old tenets of restaurant life don’t hold as true. Nutrition was never Gallagher’s first priority in the first 15 years of his career — taste and appearance reigned supreme. His last four years have been spent learning to avoid reaching for the butter, swapping out unhealthy ingredients to improve nutrition while still making food that is recognizable to the 60-plus people he feeds breakfast, lunch and sometimes takeaway meals to.
“I don’t really have any rules, other than obviously nutrition,” said Gallagher, who has worked in some prominent Toronto restaurants such as Lynn Crawford’s Ruby Watchco. “First and foremost (is) quality of product, tasty and nutritious is the second hand. Everything’s always evolving.”
That statement rings particularly true in December. Gallagher has been firing on all cylinders thanks to a gruelling schedule that has the Raptors playing 16 games this month, including 11 at home. The team is in Toronto for parts of 26 days of December thanks to short road trips, including a back-to-back against the Philadelphia 76ers and the Chicago Bulls Dec. 8-9, and one-night trips to the Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics.
The holidays presented an added challenge because suppliers take time off. Gallagher usually works a week ahead when it comes to ordering — organic, wild, local and sustainable, where possible — but the break meant he has to get his orders in earlier.
Still, Gallagher knows players, coaches and front-office personnel miss a lot of family celebrations during the season so he likes to do something special when he can.
The Scarborough-born chef’s take on the holidays includes some of the staples you would expect at Thanksgiving or Christmas — but without the typical butter, cream and excess. There might be turkey, but it comes in the form of meat loaf, homemade sausage or smoked turkey breast. His stuffing is vegetarian, using whole grain bread and bound together with an almond milk and sweet potato mixture, rather than eggs. Even his apple crumble — a treat for a special occasion as dessert is normally not on the menu — is made with coconut oil and gluten free oats.
It gets confusing sometimes, Gallagher admits, when he’s prepping and cooking one set of menus and ordering for another in the same week. The chef had some good practice last spring during the Raptors’ championship playoff run. There was no chance for Gallagher getting ahead as he couldn’t predict the team’s schedule the following week.
But he got by with a little help from the fan base.
“The entire city was so crazy about it,” Gallagher said. “I called suppliers and I was like, ‘Just send me more chicken tomorrow,’ and they were like, ‘Yeah, no problem, no problem, you guys are doing great!’ It was pretty great, everybody was on board with everything.”
Despite the busy spring and summer, Gallagher wrote about 40 menus during pre-season in September to have in his back pocket for packed stretches such as now. He rotates through them but the menus change seasonally so no two days are really the same.
“In a normal kitchen chef job, you get stuck with a menu,” Gallagher said. “You’re running that menu for a pretty extended amount of time and even if you’re doing features and changing it you’re really still running the same menu over and over. Here I don’t do that at all.”
There are go-to foods that are expected, such as homemade hot sauces, beef jerky and Gallagher’s famous protein bars. The team is currently on a cookie kick. Gallagher uses butter — organic and grass-fed — for only two purposes in his kitchen: on toast and in cookies. His chocolate chip treats featuring smoked paprika, cayenne pepper and salt are usually served to media members at practices.
“This has turned into a thing and now I’m doing cookies and the players are like, ‘Do you have any extra cookies upstairs? And I’m like, ‘I don’t think you’re supposed to be eating cookies but whatever, you’re burning calories so we’ll pretend like it’s fine.’ I guess if there’s a cookie that’s marginally good for you. Ish … ,” he trails off with a laugh.
“But still, the quality of the ingredients are good,” he said.
If he cooks a roast, Gallagher puts out horse radish for a particularly obsessed coach. He surveys players’ social media accounts and inquires about the restaurant reservations they make through the team to get a sense of their tastes. There are always three proteins at lunch: generally a chicken, a fish or seafood, and a third meat considered a “treat,” meaning a fattier option like lamb or game.
Gallagher planned to spend the week leading up to the holidays when the Raptors hosted the franchise’s first Christmas Day game, adding festive touches to themed days. An Italian theme meant turkey meatballs and bolognese. Turkey fingers (baked, not fried, of course) was also on the menu. A Southern theme could be made more Christmas-y with cranberry syrup and sweet potato waffles to go with not-so-fried chicken.
“I’ll Christmas up a menu so they don’t get bombarded with Christmas but at the same time they’re kind of like, ‘Ok, I get what you’re doing here,’ ” he said.
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In general, Gallagher tries to scale back gluten and dairy to promote digestive health and add more protein. He says there are ways to make a holiday meal healthier, like using coconut or almond milk instead of sour cream or butter in mashed potatoes, making the dish dairy free and adding some good fats. Crispy — meaning fried — Brussels sprouts are a popular dish in restaurants these days. Gallagher roasts his take on the side with apples and adds nuts and seeds or a homemade granola to create a texture that’s similar to the more popular, less healthy fried version.
Going healthy has become easier over the years, even at the holidays. The first year Gallagher was in charge he focused on making everybody happy. Now, he’s pushing his eaters a little bit more.
“We sort of gained their trust and now we’re pushing them a little bit further,” he said. “Every year we get a little bit more, a little bit (healthier).”
Maybe one day soon he won’t have to camouflage the vegetables.