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Even without games or events, the Amalie Arena kitchen remains busy

2,000 meals per day are being prepared and supplied to Feeding Tampa Bay

by Bryan Burns @BBurnsNHL / TampaBayLightning.com

In the midst of a pandemic, Waylon Nelson's culinary proficiency is practically priceless.

The executive chef of the Tampa Bay Lightning can go into a kitchen, examine the contents of the refrigerator/freezer, rummage through the pantry and create a list of meals that can keep a group fed for two weeks.

And he can expertly cook those meals too.

Tell me who wouldn't want to be quarantined with someone possessing that skillset right about now?

"I started something at home with my wife where I'll write down 15 things we can make with what we have, and I say, 'You pick what you want,'" Nelson said. "Because I don't know about your house, but it's always, 'What do you want for dinner?' 'I don't know.'"

Nelson has taken that know-how and ramped it up to a remarkable level, cranking out 2,000 meals a day for Feeding Tampa Bay and its lead in the fight against Bay Area hunger.

"I'll have it up to probably 3,000 by the end of this," Nelson said.

I can't tell if he's joking or being serious.

"You don't know me very well," he replied, laughing.

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In the now eight weeks since the NHL has been on pause, Feeding Tampa Bay has seen its requests for support increase at least 100 percent according to the organization's executive director Thomas Mantz.

People who weren't used to being stuck at home suddenly found themselves confined, unable to get to a grocery store because of quarantine measures put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19.

"It really started with a bunch of folks flooding us with calls saying, 'Can you help us with meals?'" Mantz said. "We have Trinity Café, which does some work in preparing meals, and we quickly ramped it up to capacity, but it was nowhere near what we needed."

Delaware North, which provides concessions, suites, premium dining and catering service at AMALIE Arena, donated all the excess food that would have been used during a three-game Lightning homestand and the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament to Feeding Tampa Bay and Metropolitan Ministries.

But there was an even greater need for cooked meals.

"Through those conversations with Feeding Tampa Bay, it came up that we have the culinary talent, we have the kitchen space, would we be interested in helping out and being a production center for them," DNC general manager at AMALIE Arena George Raub said.

"We were happy to jump in."

Chef Nelson and his team started cooking in an AMALIE Arena kitchen prepping 1,000 meals a day. They wore masks and worked six feet apart.

"Took the first 1,000 meals to get our feet under us and make sure we could do it in a safe, socially-distanced way," Raub said.

Nelson's team added a couple more people and ramped up to 2,000 meals a day, 10,000 a week. The crew works a typical 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule. There are usually seven to 10 people on any given day toiling away inside the kitchen. They've gotten it down where they can push out 1,000 meals in about four hours.

Once the meals are completed, they're packaged, labeled and stored in a freezer.

Feeding Tampa Bay picks up some of the meals from AMALIE Arena and delivers themselves. They also use Uber Eats and Amazon. Their restaurant partners have loaned delivery vans too.

"We're figuring out in every circumstance what's the most cost-effective way to do that using different partnerships to make it happen," Mantz said.

For Nelson, the daily 2,000-meal-a-day challenge is almost a break from his in-season routine. On a Lightning game day, he'll get to the arena at 7 a.m. and won't leave until the second intermission.

"This is almost like summer hours for us," he said.

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For the first week of the program, Nelson prepared food already at AMALIE Arena. Feeding Tampa Bay began supplying the food as it continued with Vinik Sports Group helping to underwrite some of those costs. In late March, Lightning captain Steven Stamkos announced he and his teammates were donating 500,000 meals. 

Nelson works with Feeding Tampa Bay's food purveyor to help him stay in a certain cost per meal and to find out what kind of products he'll be working with.

"It's almost like I get a mystery basket," Nelson explained. "I say, 'Hey, what have you got this week?' He sends me an email, and then I kind of put it together."

Nelson's task sounds a lot like the premise to Iron Chef.

"They're only doing three plates, not 2,000," he quips.

Nelson makes a daily trip to the arena's hydroponic garden where he picks fresh vegetables and herbs to use in the meals.

On today's menu is chicken cordon bleu with wild rice pilaf and mixed vegetables. The day before, Nelson served General Tso's chicken with broccoli and white rice. Tomorrow he'll do a grilled chicken breast with barbeque sauce, scalloped potatoes and green beans.

"It's a starch, a veg, a protein and generally a sauce of some sort," he said.

The key to tackling such a monumental task, Nelson says, is organization.

And planning ahead.

When we spoke on April 28, he already had his menus written through May 8.

Nelson and his staff do much of the prep for today's meal the day before.

They use products that have already been processed to cut down on cooking time.

"Maybe the chicken is already grilled and cut up, and then we're making a yellow rice and black beans to go with it," Nelson said. "Basically, what we're trying to do is the heavy lifting the day before and just really kind of package up the day of."

Nelson also cooks lunch for everyone working that day as well as lunch for the building.

"We all eat around noon," he said. "Kind of breaks up the day."

After lunch, prepping continues for the next day.

"A lot of planning on a large scale when you get pallets of food versus boxes or cases," Nelson says.

"It's basically as if I was making lunch for 2,000 people."

Mantz said Feeding Tampa Bay can't function without the support from the community and partners like the Lightning, DNC and Vinik Sports Group to make it happen.

"There's no worse feeling in the world than not knowing where your next meal's coming from," Mantz said. "Imagine that just for yourself. Imagine that for somebody you care about, whether it's a kid, a parent or a grandparent. The idea that you don't know if you're going to eat today is a horrible feeling, and today more than ever that is happening to people in our community.

"…There's a lot of folks who a month ago thought they had a good, secure job and a month later are in a food line. Folks are scared. They don't know where to find support. One of the things we want to make sure we can do and one of the things our partnership with (the Lightning) helps us do is make sure people have a meal, make sure they know they can get a meal. And so, we're really, really concerned with making sure we can provide a good, healthy, tasty meal where someone wants to have one because we sure don't want anybody to go without."

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Nelson emails after we talk to tell me the service for Feeding Tampa Bay has been extended until the end of May.

"Me and my team are ready to do it indefinitely at this point," he writes.

Right now, they're sticking to 2,000 meals a day.

But if more are needed, Nelson's ready.

"If I had an extra four people to do an extra thousand (meals), I think it could be doable."

If you need food support, would like to volunteer or donate to Feeding Tampa Bay, please visit feedingtampabay.org.

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