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Coyotes Cuisine: In the Kitchen with Team Chef Mario Maura

A behind-the-scenes look at the process of preparing food for Coyotes players at the team facilities

by Alex Kinkopf @AEKinkopf / Arizona Coyotes

For Coyotes chef Mario Maura, catering to the team tastes means preparing comfort food that's delicious, and very nutritious. That includes a favorite dish among the players and staff -- Sweet Potato Gnocchi.

It's Maura's signature creation.

"It's a pasta dish, but instead of using regular potatoes, we use sweet potatoes in a mixture of flour," Maura said. "Because of the sweet potatoes, it's higher in sugar. The taste buds of most of the guys on the team kind of leans to the sweet side of things, so they really, really love those."

Maura, 28, is finishing his first year as Coyotes team chef. He also has served with the NFL Denver Broncos and the MLB's St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants. Of hockey players' eating habits versus the NFL and MLB, there's no drastic differences, saying: "[Hockey players] tend to eat only at specific meal periods, whereas football and baseball players usually graze all day, and they usually consume more carbohydrates."

Pasta, along with proteins -- meat -- are menu staples for the Coyotes.

"They also love raviolis as well as any of the fish preparations," said Maura. "When we get any fish it's the best quality we can get, so it's super fresh and they are huge fans of that, as well as chicken products, honestly. It's just chicken, right? Every single athlete that's trying to put on weight and gain muscle is trying to eat as much chicken as possible, and I think a lot of these guys go for that as well."

And when it comes to chicken, or any type of poultry or red meat for that matter, Maura provides pounds of it - about 20 to 25 per meal.

"When we [buy] our proteins, when we source our chicken, our steak, our fish, we are really buying the highest quality we can," he said. "We're trying to stay away from confined animal feeding operations and stuff like that. It's as good as we can get it.

"I try to incorporate as many vegetables and as much nutrition as I can in all of the dishes that I prepare," he said. "Incorporating vegetables into the starches; incorporating vegetables into the protein, just so they get a varied diet that will help fuel them on the ice and help them recover after training."

Maura acquires all of the team's produce from a farm 11 miles from Gila River Arena.

"When we're getting produce, it's directly fresh from the farm," he said. "They pick it the day before and then they deliver it to us. We're getting peak flavor, peak nutrition out of our ingredients."

Maura, who cooks with an emphasis on nutrition and freshness, knows that there is a science to it, also.

"The players' bodies are machines," he said. "We work really, really closely with our head dietician, our registered dietician, Paige Crawford, and she'll go through any of the special needs that the players may have, any of the diet constraints they may have, but overall, we have a pretty easy bunch to please.

"We try to feed them good, healthy calories to keep them eating and keep them fueled," said Maura, who holds a degree in culinary nutrition. "But you want to keep them guessing a little bit, give them a little more variety."

On a typical practice or game day, Maura begins catering to coaching staff and injured players as early as 7:30 in the morning.

"We'll just start off by having a simple cook-to-order breakfast menu," he said. "They can order basically anything that you'd order at an iHop or a Waffle House, but once again, with a strong emphasis on nutrition and freshness. Made-to-order eggs, all that stuff."

On game days, Maura likes to stick to routine for lunch, mostly because athletes tend to be creatures of habit.

"If it's a game day, lunch will always be the same exact meal, or at least very similar ingredients," he said. "It'll be composed slightly different to break up the monotony, but it will always be a very carb-heavy meal. It'll usually be sweet potatoes, pasta, some sort of lean meat, some sort of chicken product usually and a vegetable of choice, something that's easy to digest and won't be too heavy on their systems. Something that's not too high in fiber, because they're going to have a game later that day and they're going to want to have all those carbs to fuel them for that experience." 

Practice days can be more creative.

"That's when we have some fun," he said. "We switch the menu around a little bit, and we give them some variety. Sometimes, it'll be a little bit of a cheat meal. We'll do tacos, we'll make pizza. We'll do a whole bunch of stuff, just to try to get them to eat as much food as possible. Usually, our team is pretty low in body fat levels, so our primary goal during the season is to keep weight on them, keep them healthy, keep giving them anti-inflammatory foods, keep giving them foods that will help them recover and keep their bodies healthy. Keep their joints and all that stuff moving properly."

Then there's the all-important postgame dine, which Maura describes as "a king's meal."

"It'll be something that you would get at a steakhouse," he said. "Whether it be a good steak, good pieces of fish, all that stuff, ready to go with sauces. We do barbecue, we go through Latin cuisines, we go through Greek cuisines, we just try to give them a lot of variety, the same sort of thing they would do if they were eating out after the game."

Maura generally isn't able to watch the on-ice action. From game start to finish, he is working feverishly to construct the post-game spread, which usually is ready with 10 or 15 minutes remaining in the third period.

Scratched players, staff, and referees usually are the first to get a taste of the post-game buffet.

"The thing about postgame is, the guys that are coming off the ice, the last thing they want to do is eat right away," Maura said. "They'll go through their treatment process -- the medical staff takes good care of them, making sure to cool them down, giving them treatment, giving them massages. And then, after that, when they're in a more relaxed state, they'll shower up and they'll eat."

Maura will fire up the grill, again, depending on the players' postgame timeline, ready to sear more fish, more steak, or more chicken.

The outcome of a game, too, can affect consumption.

"It could be a beautiful spread," he said. "But, if it's a game we lost, then maybe the mood's going to be really sour - 'We really needed that win.' The guys aren't going to touch it, because no one's hungry after a loss. That's the difficult thing to deal with as a chef, because you're sourcing as best as you can, you're trying to get the best possible ingredients for these guys to help them recover after a game, and sometimes they're really not hungry. Winners want to eat, losers want to … you know, take the loss and try to grow from it."

For the most part, the post-game menu remains the same. 

"A healthier starch option, a second -- maybe more fatty -- starch option, which may be a little more delicious than the first one. So, you have something lean and then something a little bit heavier. You give them a vegetable, you give them a salad, you give them a heavier protein and a lighter protein, steak and fish, or chicken and lamb, something where they can choose."

And Coyotes, as with most professional athletes, have the luxury of needing to eat more carbohydrates.

Yes, more carbohydrates.

"That's what I've tried to work on with our dietician," Maura said, "To get these guys to consume more carbohydrates, to consume more vegetables. Proteins are definitely necessary to build and recover, absolutely, but too much can sometimes slow you down. II think that's where that nutrition aspect of things comes to light, and you really have to pay attention to that when you're feeding a professional athlete. "[You] try to educate them on 'Hey, we actually need these carbs.' It's cool to have a lot of protein, but carbs are fuel.

"Different body types require different fuel, and typically the older the guys get, they start to figure out what works well for them, what works well in their system, in their stomachs, what they can digest well. Our strength and conditioning staff definitely help guide the guys as to what they should be eating or grabbing."

And, what about desserts? Well, that's truly a treat. But those delectable dishes are not routine.

"Not very often," Maura said about things that satisfy a sweet tooth. "It's one of those things where I feel the support staff comes in - and even coach Tocchet - he'll say 'Hey, it's okay, we've won a couple games, I think these guys earned it'."

"It won't necessarily be a junky dessert," Maura said. "It tastes good. It's maybe not as healthy as a completely nutritional dessert would be, but at the same time you'll have things in there that are going to give you a little bang for your buck, nutrition-wise, and calorically. That happens maybe once a home stand if we're doing alright. I think that's a good way to keep it."

Two recent desserts come to mind: oatmeal-raisin cookies and Greek yogurt cheesecake.

"The cookies are made with tons of actual oatmeal," Maura said. "No regular flour. They're gluten-free, made out of coconut flour, almond flour, chia seeds and flax seeds. So, they're high in fiber and have a really solid taste as well.

"For the cheesecake, we used half cream cheese half Greek yogurt," he said. "That lowered the fat content and upped the protein content. Then we made a huckleberry jam. Huckleberries are very, very high in antioxidants, as are blueberries. They're essentially just wild blueberries, and that was the topping for the cheesecake, and the guys really seemed to enjoy that. Some guys really appreciate it, some guys don't notice it, but it's for the guys who want that sweet treat at the end of the meal."

When it comes to food, the Coyotes know Maura will cater to their needs.

Photos courtesy: Mario Maura - Arizona Coyotes

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