SOUTH PORTLAND — Apparently, being agile with a hockey stick gives a person mad knife skills.
At least that’s the way it appeared Tuesday when a dozen Portland Pirates invaded the teaching kitchen at Southern Maine Community College’s culinary school to learn how to prepare nutritious meals that will fuel their athlete bodies.
Standing around a big table in their jeans and T-shirts, chopping ginger and garlic for a teriyaki marinade, the big chef’s knives in their hands moved up and down smoothly and efficiently, as if they were pros. Only one player seemed to really struggle, sawing back and forth on a bunch of herbs as if he were chopping down a tree.
Chris Brown, a 21-year-old forward from Flower Mound, Texas, who calls himself “a sometimes cooker,” credited his ease with a knife to a lifetime of hunting deer. “I’m not a big vegetable person, so all these greens are freaking me out a little bit,” he said.
Brown said he is trying to eat better, and hopes the cooking class will help.
“It’s obviously important in a long season that you treat your body the way it needs to be treated,” Brown said. “I’ll be the first to tell you that I need a cheat day or two for calories or to just get something like McDonald’s. I don’t mind fast food, but I’ve been a little more cautious this season and I’m trying to be a little bit more healthy.”
Tuesday’s three-hour class, taught by Jill Hannaford, executive chef at the McKernan Center on campus, was designed to teach Brown and his teammates about healthy ingredients and how to prepare them.
“These guys are world-class athletes, and what they’re doing right now is providing the best fuel for their bodies and their performance,” said Brian Petrovek, managing owner and CEO of the Portland Pirates, as he watched the beginning of the class.
The Pirates are known for sharing tips on where and what to eat on Twitter, so they care about eating well. But, despite their typical game-day meal of chicken, pasta, vegetables and salad, life on the road can be a blur of rich restaurant sauces, pizza and fast food. And when they’re home, sometimes it’s just easier to get take-out.
On Tuesday, the players made meat, fish and chicken dishes, as well as sides and desserts. They learned the difference between flat-leaf and curly parsley, cut thin ribbons of zucchini, juiced and zested lemons, cleaned mushrooms, crimped the edges of a pastry crust, and practiced properly peeling and coring an apple for a rustic apple tart.
Saute pans sizzled as the players lined up at the stove to saute broccoli, carrots and other vegetables. Goalie Mark Visentin tossed tomatoes in his pan with the finesse (almost) of Mario Batali.
Learning how a pepper grinder works was, apparently, fairly exciting.
“Whoa! Whoa!” several players exclaimed when Hannaford demonstrated how twisting the knob on top of the grinder would produce different sizes of pepper grains.
They were polite and focused in the kitchen, but still as competitive as on the ice.
“How’s that, Brownie?” Brandon Gormley said as he held up his peeled apple for Chris Brown to see.
“That’s great,” Brown replied. “Way better than me.”
“That’s what I was going for,” Gormley said.
Right wing Brett Hextall, a 21-year-old from Philadelphia, said he cooks “a decent amount” at home, but likes to keep things simple. He’s made salmon a few times, but thinks he’ll definitely be making the Fish with Herbs en Papillote he learned on Tuesday again.
“It’s kind of cool to see some of the combinations (of ingredients),” he said. “The fish, for example, using fresh herbs and stuff like that. I usually just dip it in sauce.”
Like Hextall, Gormley seemed most impressed with the ways the chef used fresh herbs and spices.
“Usually I wouldn’t even think of buying them,” he said. “I’ll walk into the supermarket all the time and not even look at them.”
The players were given their own cookbooks filled with the recipes they prepared Tuesday, along with food handling tips, a cooking glossary, a guide to preparing and cooking vegetables and whole grains, a list of emergency substitutions, and more.
Brown said he planned to use the book to start cooking more for his parents “instead of the other way around,” and said he would also try to whip up a surprise meal for his roommate, defenseman Chris Summers, whom he compared to celebrity chef Bobby Flay.
“Maybe I’ll leave practice a little earlier than Chris does, and get home and start cooking and see if he has a slight heart attack when he walks through the door and I’m in the kitchen for longer than he is.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: