TORONTO — Having already turned Scotiabank Arena into a giant kitchen, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment is adding BMO Field to the cooking mix.
With the help of sponsor BMO, the lakefront stadium is being repurposed to add more kitchen muscle to help produce meals for Toronto's front-line health-care workers and the city's most vulnerable during the global pandemic.
Adding BMO Field's primary kitchen is expected to increase the number of daily meals to up to 13,000 from the initial goal of 10,000. The program total to date should hit the 100,000-meal milestone this week.
MLSE president and CEO Michael Friisdahl has seen firsthand how the meals have been received by workers at local hospitals.
"It just an outpouring of gratitude from the people that we should be really thanking from the bottom of our hearts for what they do each and every day on the front lines," said Friisdahl.
BMO Field, home to MLS's Toronto FC and the CFL Argonauts, has a large production kitchen adjacent to the BMO Club under the east stand.
"It's very spacious, which allows us to work with our social distancing rules in mind," said MLSE culinary director Chris Zielinski. "And then having the (BMO) Club right next door with the tables that are the right height for building meals just made it a perfect location."
The program is also taking advantage of the nine kitchens at Scotiabank Arena.
Zielinski has some 25 chefs at work along with 75 support staff assembling the meals at the two venues. "It's an army," he said.
While the venues provide the space to assemble the many meals, Zielinski says the actual cooking process remains challenging. The chefs can't work in their normal close quarters and mass meal production requires special cooking tools.
"Our regular format we would use lots of small pots and pans. Those are no good to us right now because we're not doing anything of that size. Large ovens, large tilting skillets, all sorts of big pots, all that stuff is getting use to the max," Zielinski said.
Companies have stepped up to help, with the likes of Higgins Event Rentals providing more ovens.
In the first two weeks of operation, the meal program has used almost 25,000 pounds of chicken, 15,000 pounds of potatoes, 10,000 pounds of mixed vegetables and 8,000 pounds of pasta.
Second Harvest, the largest food rescue organization in Canada, and local suppliers and sponsors are supplying fresh ingredients daily to the MLSE team. The chefs then turn those supplies, along with other food purchased or donated, into the ready-to-heat single-serving meals.
The meals are delivered five days a week to hospitals and community agencies.
The MLSE program is helping fill the void left by food bank kitchens that have had to close or reduce meal production during the pandemic.
"We all look forward to the day when we can return to hosting and entertaining our fans, but until then, we are focused on doing everything we can to help our community recover from this difficult period," MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum said in a statement.
BMO joins MLSE and part-owners Bell Canada and Rogers Communications as well as Scotiabank and Tangerine Bank in making the program happen. Mackie Movers, Pinnacle Caterers, Nestle Canada, McCormick Canada, Smucker's and Diageo are among those who have also rolled up their sleeves.
"Businesses in Toronto have stepped up throughout this crisis to help the community — it's the Toronto way," said Mayor John Tory.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 6, 2020.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press