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If the Eagles hadn’t gotten fried rice for breakfast this Friday, chef Jason Buniak would’ve never heard the end of it.
Serving the dish — a mashup that includes bacon, eggs, onions, soy sauce and rice — has become a Friday tradition at the NovaCare Complex in South Philly. Breakfast fried rice is what the players have come to expect on the morning two days before a game.
Making sure it’s there is the closest Buniak will come to admitting superstition.
“Within the building, we try to keep it as normal as possible,” said the 38-year-old chef, who’s in his fifth year feeding Philly’s NFL organization.
Yes, being in the postseason is a big deal, he said, “but we don’t want to dwell on that fact.”
Which means that about four hours before they take on the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship on Sunday, Nick Foles, Zach Ertz, Malcolm Jenkins, Lane Johnson, Jay Ajayi and the rest of their teammates will be eating exactly what they always eat prior to heading out on the field.
What does pro football pregame fuel consist of? Pasta.
Per Buniak, the center of this Sunday’s meal will be a pasta bar, where players can choose various sauces and toppings to mix with high-protein whole wheat noodles.
“Marinara, alfredo, bolognese, chicken, sausage, shrimp, spinach, peppers, broccoli, artichokes…it’s a nice spread, but a very relaxed menu,” he said, noting there’s also a hot buffet offering sliced sirloin, fresh vegetables and grilled chicken.
Coming up with dishes to serve in the team cafeteria is a serious responsibility.
“They’re beating up their bodies on a weekly basis,” Buniak said. “Food is definitely a big part of recovery.”
The chef is the one to develop the recipes, but he gets lots of assistance. Each new dish he thinks up — and he’s always looking to add variety to his 40-plus entree rotation — is first sent over to Nicole Feneli, director of wellness at FLIK Hospitality Group, the contractor that runs the kitchen at the NovaCare Complex.
Feneli and her staff enter the ingredients into their system to calculate the calories and other nutritional metrics, then send over feedback and suggested tweaks.
Together, the FLIK team makes sure they’re serving foods with just the right balance of nutrients — carbs, proteins, vitamins, fiber, heart-healthy fats — so the players can maintain energy and bring their A game.
That ideal balance shifts throughout the week.
Wednesdays and Thursdays are usually the heavy practice days, so Buniak keeps the fare lighter, with fewer carbs and starches.
On those days, fish dishes take center stage, like soy-marinated mahi-mahi and BBQ salmon, along with chicken breast and lean cuts of beef. Everything is well-seasoned, Buniak said, especially because “a little heavier sodium is good for them, to offset all the water weight they lose.”
Friday is considered the “cheat day” of the week. (It used to be called “Junk Food Friday,” per Buniak, but that name has been retired.)
Along with the breakfast fried rice, then, the cafeteria is filled with comfort foods. A big favorite are the house-smoked meats cooked on a brand new smoker out back. This week Buniak served beef brisket, pulled pork and oxtail, accompanied by sides like three-cheese mac ‘n’ cheese.
Saturday is back to the lean protein — today’s menu includes grilled swordfish, French-cut chicken breast and a whole sirloin steak roast — plus a few extra carbohydrate options.
Sunday (or any game day) is all about carb-loading, hence the big pasta bar, which Buniak said is also set up when the Eagles play on the road. That’s served four hours prior to gametime, after which the players head to the locker room to get ready.
After the game, there’s one more meal, usually something fun like fried chicken.
Buniak, a native of South Jersey who’s been an Eagles fan all his life, is trying to stay calm as he preps this Sunday’s menu.
“We’re trying to block out the outside chatter as much as possible,” he said, “but it’s definitely very exciting.”