While Grizzlies head nutritionist Nick Arcuri could have settled for several restaurant jobs in the paradise of Miami, he knew that he’d rather eventually work in sports. His long road to the NBA includes a veritable wealth of culinary experience, studies of biochemistry and psychology, and the advent of his own personalized nutrition company. All of his past experience, which includes plenty of restaurant positions and a sports franchise gig, led to him being only one of two Registered Dietitians (RD) in the NBA.
An RD, essentially, is a nutrition and food expert who understands the science behind good nutrition and can translate that into a healthy diet for others. The path to becoming registered, however, is not easy, but Arcuri made sure he covered all the bases beforehand. He first started cooking at the French Culinary Institute (its current incarnation known as the International Culinary Center) in New York City, where a master chef-authored curriculum taught him classic culinary techniques. In addition, he’d held various positions in the hospitality sector as a waiter, bartender, and supervisor. The Institute provided a platform to gain even more experience, so he worked night shifts at Benoit, a classic French Bistro.
Upon graduation, he joined the opening team at Scarpetta, a Miami Beach restaurant opened by Chef Scott Conant (a judge on Food Network’s Chopped). It was there that Arcuri would cultivate a work ethic that closely aligned with the Grizzlies famous Grit ’N Grind motto.
“Working directly under Top Chef Nina Compton really gave me a serious push to always think big and constantly look for ways to expand my abilities and refrain from complacency at all cost.” As if one high-profile cooking position weren’t enough, he also began cooking at Emeril’s at the Loews Hotel (helmed by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse) and Nobu at the Shore Club Hotel. After Miami came New York once again, with a stint at top catering company Abigail Kirsch.
After several years in New York, a move to Colorado would kick-start Arcuri’s sports nutrition career. He complemented his work with science credits in Medical Nutrition Therapy and Biochemistry before entering into a Dietetic Internship at the Denver Broncos, the last step before the Registered Dietitian Exam. The Broncos provided Arcuri’s first taste of sports nutrition, and, crucially, gave him the platform for his very own business.
While working with the Broncos’ Dietitian Bryan Snyder (whom Arcuri names as one of his chief mentors, along with Chef Adam Sacks and renowned sports dietitian Dave Ellis), he became familiar with some of the players. “They found out that I was a chef and expressed a need for take-home meals in order to stay on track and out of restaurants and fast food chains. So from one day to the next I got myself incorporated and insured. Within a week I was cooking for four guys including Malik Jackson and Von Miller.” The personalized consulting/meal service came to be known as CUSTOMFIT and gave Arcuri a taste of preparing nutrition programs for hugely talented defensive players.
CUSTOMFIT allowed Arcuri to simultaneously pay the bills while improving his cooking abilities. It also allowed him to experiment with his nutrition formula until he could settle on a process he now uses in his capacity as Grizzlies head nutritionist. He’s found that what works best is to keep it simple.
“Food is fuel. My approach is not to reinvent food and push unfamiliar products on guys; instead, I take pride in my ability to remove the empty calories and replace them with nutrient-dense products, ultimately increasing the beneficial attributes to every dish. Our goal is to give these guys more bang for their buck, maximizing the amount of nutrients per bite. We cook all meals — breakfast, lunch, and pre-game dinner — to order, restaurant-style so it is as fresh as possible.”
He also provides catering at the airport prior to away games and has a ready collection of recovery shakes, smoothies, and other healthy beverages available to the players at all times.
The final stop before Memphis came with the St. Louis Rams. While a great experience, it provided a gateway for Arcuri to create his own culinary stamp. “My boss left the job midway through the pre-season, so I ran the show for a month before the Grizzlies offered me the job in Memphis. While the Rams proposed a great a job offer, I wanted to create my own program as opposed to hitting cruise control on a nutrition program already in place.” So far, Arcuri has seized his opportunity with both hands.
With athletic condition more important than ever in today’s game, especially for a high-intensity defensive team such as the Grizzlies, having a balanced diet is crucial for the franchise’s continued success. Proper nutrition leads to a stronger immune system, enabling the body to stay healthy. This is especially important for fighting off the common cold, which can quickly strike during the long roads trips players take.
Photo courtesy Nick Arcuri (customfitchef on Instagram)
In addition, it enhances “increased muscle hypertrophy (growth) post workout, replenishment of depleted energy stores post game and practice, reduction in excessive inflammation by way of anti-inflammatory and high anti-oxidant foods such as coconut, fresh fatty seafood, olive oil, leafy greens, fruits, and nuts.”
Arcuri also offers pre-game “shots” using food products, rather than supplements. This way, blood vessels are dilated, thus increasing the flow of oxygen, which results in more energy for the players.
Tailoring a diet for an individual athlete is tough, as there are a considerable number of variables. Arcuri must look at the weight-bearing capacity of a player’s joints and the weights at which a player has historically played his best. In addition, every player expends a different amount of energy per game, which must be factored in.
The current Grizzlies roster contains a variety of body types, but Arcuri states that on average, he recommends the players consume between 2800 to 4500 calories a day. In a season ravaged by injuries, the Grizzlies nutritionist has to constantly be on top of his game to ensure the smoothest possible fitness and recovery for the players.
Most fans focus on what happens on the court, but a huge part of the team’s success is built off it. His overhaul of the system accounts for every potential problem and is sure to provide maximum efficiency once the current spate of injuries (some of which, like tearing an Achilles or ACL, are unpredictable and can’t be accounted for) comes to an end.