The All-Star Chef Tasked With Fixing the NBA Bubble’s Food Nightmare
Following a series of Instagrams complaining about the food in the NBA bubble, the league brought in executive chef Shawn Loving, who tells Tarpley Hitt how he righted the ship.
It’s been eons since early July, when athletes first arrived at the NBA bubble and started joking about poorly-lit photos of pasta. The gist of the mini media scandal was the food; namely, that it wasn’t fine dining. The whole ordeal had the trappings of a second Fyre Festival: very rich guys semi-stranded in less-than-luxury accommodations, forced to eat meals resembling summer camp fare in takeout containers.
The sob story later proved overblown. The pictured meals were only served during the 36-hour isolation period, arriving individually packaged in biodegradable containers, as many of the bubble’s servers—unlike the athletes—were not granted daily testing, creating what The Athletic called “the Disney food’s aesthetics problem.” After players emerged from their lockdowns, they had several alternatives, including local restaurant delivery and the option to hire a private chef.
But the NBA responded to the attention anyway. After a week of grainy Instagram images, they brought in Shawn Loving—executive chef for Team USA Basketball, who formerly cooked for the Pistons and Disney’s Epcot park—to reimagine the menu into something less middlebrow.
Chef Loving’s a genial guy, who gives off the impression of an unflustered multitasker. He was cooking several sauces when I first called his cellphone. “I’m in the middle of prepping the Lakers a late lunch,” Loving said, gently escorting me off the phone. He talks about cooking like a high school football coach mid-huddle. The bubble is called the Mission. The workday has a rhythm and flow. Every day, his staff of 11 chefs get in their zone. They’re ready for anything because they’re All-Stars. “The individuals that are with me, they know how to hit it,” he said. “We know how to hit that home run... It’s a real chef’s world here. We’ve got stuff in bags. We’re moving along every day. No days off in this situation... The games begin. The movements begin. The plans begin.”
Loving arrived in the bubble on July 14, got tested immediately, and went straight into quarantine. He stayed in his hotel room for three days until he “received a green light to begin the process of the Mission.” In isolation, the chef said he spent most of his time planning. The Disney facility had come with a kitchen with all the basic small wares and amenities. “But it’s almost like walking into a satellite kitchen that needs love,” Loving said.
“You’re planning ingredients, whether it’s produce, proteins—what’s going to be the heavy push of items that are going to be needed?” he continued. “You’re sourcing and scouting out fresh fruit. We had to bring in all the spices, all the fresh herbs, all the dry goods that would be necessary to get, all the sanitation products that are necessary—whether it be: what’s used for the three-compartment sink? What’s used for the dish machine? What types of chemicals are necessary? What’s going to be the COVID sanitation routine each evening? What’s going to take place? You know, a schedule being built, continued social distancing in the kitchen, getting the fresh fish flown in. What days will the fish come in? When will the poultry come in? You’re inspecting all of it. That’s the game plan that I used while I was in quarantine. How did I get my program strong for games starting? That’s what I did.”
For Loving, the workday starts at dawn, when he and his team report for daily COVID testing. After securing their negatives, they hit the kitchen at 6:15 a.m. and stay there until 8:00 p.m. “We sanitize the entire kitchen when we walk in,” he said. “We always have a debriefing the night before on different things, where I communicate what we need, or could do better or are changing. We look in the kitchen and make sure there’s no gas leaks and all that.”
The plan depends on the day and the team. There are about 125 people eating Loving’s food—though the total population of the bubble remains somewhat of a mystery (“That’s the million-dollar question!” an NBA representative said)—and roughly three waves of meals. But none come at the same time. Some days a team might need a pre-game meal, or a post-workout recovery snack, or smoothies for a practice session. Others might forego breakfast that day. Or need dinner in the early afternoon. All the teams eat differently. “We’re definitely not swinging along—a mashed potato, green bean, and barbecue chicken sitting in front of you and you’ve got no choices,” Loving said. “That’s not an option. That’s not how we flow. We’re flowing with everything we can do.”
On Thursday afternoon, they were flowing with a vegetarian whole wheat pasta, egg white wraps filled with sweet potatoes and lean meat, arugula, kale, and romaine salads with hemp seeds, power smoothies pureed with sea moss, a vegetarian tagine, fresh red grouper, and homemade banana bread.
Loving mostly handles the ingredients—the fish deliveries, the meat deliveries, making sure they arrive on different days, icing them upon arrival, finding local wholesalers for dried goods, keeping the flow in order. “So it’s a lot of a little, but a lot of a lot,” Loving said. “All of these moving parts. We’ve got a rhythm now for sure.”
He’s buying in bulk, but not as much bulk as you might think for feeding the entire NBA and WNBA. For example, he’s not buying one ton of rice. “You have some specialty grains, whether it be spelt or quinoa or freekeh, or a particular brown rice,” Loving said. “These are specialty things. You’re reaching out to vendors and specialty vendors that understand your quantities might be 15 pounds. But you don’t want 100 pounds or 150 pounds of something that’s been sitting on a shelf for six or eight months. That’s not the standard for us.”
The chef was careful not to reveal too much about his customers. Does LeBron get special meals? No comment. Has he gotten any unusual requests? He didn’t want to get into specifics. Did athletes ask for comfort foods? “I believe our food aligns itself strong with that name,” Loving said. Had he had any emergencies, or close-to-the-line calls, unusual incidents, interesting stories? “I haven’t had anything crazy yet, but this interview is early,” he said. “Nothing’s burning now, so we’re good.”