Chef Chris Zielinski
Culinary Director & Executive Chef | Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, Toronto, ON
Culinary Director and Executive Chef for MLSE, Chris Zielinski is the visionary captain heading up a team of approximately 20 chefs and 300 cooks at Scotiabank Arena, BMO Field and Coca-Cola Coliseum as well as Real Sports and e11even. Chris was born in Michigan, but made his way to Toronto where he heard the call of the kitchen, ultimately graduating from the culinary management program at George Brown College. His impressive culinary career has included executive chef roles at the National Ballet School, Mercer St. Grill, YYZ Restaurant and Wine Bar and Ultra Supper Club.
Now 12 years into his role at MLSE, Chris has developed a strong culinary reputation for creativity, innovation and a passion for fresh, local ingredients, and his reputation for community investment and support is just as strong. During the pandemic, Chris led the Bringing Toronto Back to its Feet program, working with his team to produce 675,000 meals for front-line workers and people in need.
Chris is a discerning chef, and it shows in the success of his menus and his food. His track record is partly based on the importance he places on his sourcing process and the strength of his relationships with local suppliers. “As the Culinary Director at MLSE and the Executive Chef, it is my job to make sure that we are selecting the right foods for our fans,” Chris states. “That involves a lot of eating. We have a large group of chefs who put together all sorts of great ideas and come up with a lot of interesting ideas that they know our fans will appreciate. It’s my job to discern whether it’s something that fans are really going to embrace and appreciate. I have to find the right sources on things – like the journey to find this porchetta, for instance. We went to a lot of different locations that people do this type of work and our last stop on that trip was Globe Meats. As chefs, we’re very critical. We go through and we take it apart. It’s not just a visual thing. We taste everything, we take little bites, we smash it, we chew it, we add things, we put it on a bun – we try it every different way we can.”
Chris has intentionally built a true culinary focus to the many restaurants and concessions at MLSE, driven by his insistence on sourcing the finest local ingredients. “At MLSE,” Chris explains, “we’re in a very unique position where the team is owned and the food and beverage is owned by the same company, so that gives us a very unique opportunity to really pursue things of quality. A lot of times you have outside caterers who run a building like that and they might cut corners or take shortcuts. Everything we do is fresh – we’re all about fresh – and that means quality products, local products, products made with care and love, and a lot of great relationships, including the one we have with Globe Meats and their porchetta. We take great pride in serving fresh, local ingredients, and preparing them from scratch with real cooks, real chefs on the ground cooking, cutting, preparing.”
The porchetta sandwich at BMO Field has become a game-day ritual for many fans, particularly amongst those of Italian descent. “With the Italian fan base in particular, we knew they would really embrace the idea of a porchetta. It’s a very common item at weddings and every other celebration of life that goes on in the Italian community in Toronto, which is massive. And you know what? It also goes great with beer. If you’ve ever been to a soccer game, you’ll know that people do love their beer and there’s nothing better than a porchetta sandwich on a hot summer day with an ice-cold beer. It is a fan favourite. The fans walk in and they get right in line and they buy their sandwich before they do anything else. It’s a rite of passage – it’s a ritual at BMO Field.”
Chris attributes the prominence of local pork on MLSE menus, in part, to Chris’ childhood and family culture. “So as a Polish American, I grew up in a Polish household with lots of pork products throughout the house – every morning we would wake up at my grandmother’s house and the smell of kielbasa cooking and pork sausages being cooked and, you know, pork was just a big part of our culture and our life and we found a way to sneak it into just about every meal. I grew up with pork being sort of the centre of the table – we didn’t really eat a lot of beef or chicken, for that matter. And so pork has always been a little bit special to me and to our family, who love pork. My mother, she can get into a rack of ribs in a heartbeat, and I will say that although ribs are one of my favourite items, these days I like a slow-roasted or carnitas style of pork is probably my go-to. I can always crush a carnitas taco any day of the week.”
Food & Family
Recipes from Chef Chris
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