TORONTO — Chef Elaine Flamenco is valued by Toronto FC players, coaches and staff for far more than her food.
Flamenco and her culinary team at the MLS club’s north Toronto training facility — Vince Ebuen, Ravi Nanayakkara and Bobby Ponniah — treat everyone who comes into their dining room as family.
"Many many people have come to the building and the first thing I’ll say to them is ‘Regardless of everything you see and everything that goes on, the best part of it is the kitchen,"’ said head coach Greg Vanney.
Flamenco sets the tone.
"Elaine is such an amazing woman," said captain Michael Bradley. "The aura that you can feel in that kitchen and in that dining room every day when you walk in at the training ground, that part is so special. And obviously she has an amazing staff."
Just as the kitchen is a focal point of most homes, TFC’s cafeteria-style dining room is a gathering point at the training centre.
It’s a welcoming spot, with a panoramic view of the outdoor training fields. The first team lounge is adjacent to the dining area, with smiles and music coming from the open kitchen.
"That’s really the heart of our club. Where a lot of things get talked about and get shared and they’re really the catalyst for all of that," Vanney said of the cooking team. "And Elaine is the leader. She’s like our mother, big sister, friend and everything in between."
And the food?
"For me it’s as good as any restaurant we go to," said Vanney. "We’re really really spoiled in terms of what we get to eat every day."
Flamenco continues to cook during the pandemic, preparing meals that are delivered to the players at home. The food is sent out every other day, with 27 first-team players (two are out of town) getting two lunches and two dinners on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
She also provides one meal a day for 15 players on Toronto FC 2, the club’s USL team. That prompted a recent thank you video from some of the USL players, who are mostly young and on their own.
Players can use an app to select from meal options. The food is cooked taking into account the need to reheat.
Flamenco is regularly in contact with the team’s sport science experts on what the players need. With the players currently at home with limited training available, portion size is a factor, although Flamenco often gets kudos from the players’ families.
Her daily goal is simple: make healthy food that tastes great.
Sample meals have included chicken skewers, basa fish, flank steak and salmon plus a starch, vegetable, salads and fruit salad. Flamenco looks to keep things as close as possible to what the players had when the training facility was open, to maintain a degree of normalcy.
Having players avoid lineups at grocery stores — and unnecessary contact outside of their home — is another plus.
"The meals have been amazing. They’ve been like a life-saver," said 20-year-old winger Jacob Shaffelburg, who had just moved into his own place when the pandemic struck.
For Bradley, the meal service is one less thing to worry about during difficult times.
"For athletes who are still trying to train and push your body to work, it becomes even more important. The way that they’ve been able to get everybody meals every day, that part has been amazing," he said. "It makes such a difference."
Keeping the food coming has proved challenging during the pandemic, from getting the supplies Flamenco needs to working in a largely deserted training centre.
"It’s really a ghost town," she said.
It has been largely been just her and sous-chef Ebuen because of the need for physical distancing in the kitchen, although Nanayakkara returned recently to help ease the load.
Everything takes longer. Only certain people are allowed into the building so deliveries are met at the door. Paper invoices are a thing of the past.
While Flamenco loves her job, she acknowledges it is hard mentally with everyone gone.
"Occasionally I’ll start doing some work and I’ll put my head up thinking that somebody’s going to enter or say something. And no one’s really there. It’s just a little sad."
Flamenco, 35, has been with the team since 2012 as part of Pinnacle Caterers, which has close ties to Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment through its catering for suites Scotiabank Arena and BMO Field.
Cooking has always been Flamenco’s love.
"Food brings people together," she said simply.
Flamenco studied culinary management at George Brown College before working a year at Scotiabank Arena. She then returned to school to study nutrition, looking to combine that knowledge with her cooking skills — "and kind of make it my own."
The youngest in a family of five, she lives with her parents. She heads straight to the shower at home after work, just to be safe, and then often ends up back in the kitchen, whipping up something simple for her folks.
"My mom’s been quite enjoying this for sure," she said.
At work, Flamenco manages to keep track of the players’ different tastes, likes, dislikes and needs.
"The way that she and her team are able to do it all is incredible. And it certainly doesn’t go unnoticed," said Bradley.
There are other little touches. A staffer coming down with a cold might find a soothing special tea sent his way unasked.
Flamenco, who speaks Spanish thanks to her parents’ El Salvadorean heritage, is so valuable that the team took her with them when they travelled to Mexico for CONCACAF Champions League games.
For Flamenco, it was a chance to meet new chefs and cook with local foods. For the travelling TFC players, it was pure comfort food.
"It felt like being home in many ways," Vanney said.