In the heart of Harlem, surrounded by fast-food chain outlets and grubby fried-chicken joints, is not necessarily where you would expect to find an artisan pizza place, churning out gluten-free pies and antibiotic-free chicken salads by the recycled boxful. Nor is that spot, just down the street from several White Castles and a Blimpie, where you’d expect to see two retired NBA All-Stars, John Starks and Anthony Mason, discussing how a more wholesome pie may be one answer to the poor nutritional habits of so many Americans, including some of their former teammates.
“We’ve lost some friends recently to not being healthy and being overweight,” says Mason, 47, who played forward for the Knicks, along with the Hornets, Heat, and other teams during his 13-year NBA career. “So when we had an opportunity to put our name on something, we didn’t want to contribute to the problem—we wanted to be part of the solution.”
The “solution” is why Mason and former Knicks shooting guard Starks say they opened up Custom Fuel Pizza in February in Harlem, one of four newly launched pizza places with the same name on the East Coast (the other three are in Washington, D.C.). Under Mason’s and Starks’ direction, Custom Fuel has become a pioneer in eco-friendly, health-conscious pizza joints, if such a category exists: All four pizzerias boast storefronts and paper products made from recycled materials, deliveries done by bicycle when possible, and pies that customers get to build on their own from a long list of unconventional ingredients that would make many guys in the NBA gawk: gluten-free crust, vegan sauce, dairy-free cheese.
At the Custom Fuel in Harlem, for example, pie toppings also include options that would make nutritionists smile: pistachios, arugula, red cabbage, low-fat mozzarella, lemon juice, farm eggs. Employees make the dough daily from unbleached, unbromated flour, while the vegetables are locally sourced when possible, and the chicken is antibiotic-free. The menu features a Gorgonzola, pear, and prosciutto pie, and 12 different signature salads, not one of them made from nutrient-poor iceberg lettuce. And while all this may sound standard for a high-end, farm-to-table restaurant, Starks and Mason say their sustainable, healthy initiative is rare for a take-out pizza place with fewer than 30 seats.
“There are a billion regular pizza places out there—we want to be different,” says Mason, who, at 6-foot-7, would cut a singular presence at any pizza place. “We’ve always considered ourselves different on the court, and this follows the trend.”
“People are health conscious now, and they’re in a hurry,” says Starks, 48, who played with the Knicks for eight years. “What this gives them is the best of both worlds—a chance to eat something of quality that’s fast.”
Adds Mason, “It’s like fried chicken versus baked chicken—regular pizza versus our pizza. We’re not saying there are no calories, but it’s a lot healthier.”
Pizza for performance nutrition
Plenty of people, though, wouldn’t use the words “healthy” and “pizza” in the same sentence—a stigma Starks and Mason, former athletes accustomed to eating for optimal performance, say just isn’t true. “Pizza can be healthy,” says Starks. “I ate pizza all through college and in the league … we all did. It didn’t deter nothing.”
Now that Mason and Starks are older, though, and not pounding the court several hours every day, they say they’ve realized that the kind of pizza they eat, along with the other nutritional choices they make, may be more important than ever to their overall health and future. “We used to be able to eat fried chicken and ribs [when we were playing], but we’d run for hours and burn it all off,” says Starks. “Now that we’re not as active and running as much, we have to be more health conscious.”
That’s not to say Starks and Mason weren’t meticulous about what they put in their mouths when they were playing pro ball, aside from that occasional rack of ribs or fried-chicken meal. “You had to make sure whatever you ate was going to be conducive to what you put out on the court,” Starks says. “Before a game I would eat a lot of carbs and stay away from red meat. I ate steak every now and then, but I mostly stayed with chicken or fish. And during the game, I’d eat an apple or orange at half time and drink plenty.”
“You definitely need carbs for energy before the game,” Mason says. “And pre-game, you would do more chicken and fish. You wouldn’t want to eat too close to games, and you’d want to stay hydrated and make sure you’d eat something light right afterward.”
What made performance nutrition easier, both Mason and Starks say, was former Knicks coach Pat Riley. “When we played for Pat, he was a health nut,” Stark says. “There were always healthy food on training tables, no matter what else we ate.”
But the question still persists in the case of Custom Fuel: Does pizza deserve a spot on a team’s training table? “There’s definitely a place for pizza in an athlete’s diet,” says Monique Ryan, a registered dietitian who has worked with many pro athletes, including members of the Chicago Bears. “A whole-grain crust is a good source of carbs, veggies are high in antioxidants, tomato sauce is going to by high in lycopene [an antioxidant shown to help fight cancer], and you can adjust the protein to the right amount you need, whether that’s three, four, or six ounces.” Still, to make a pie suitable for prime performance, Ryan advises athletes to order whole-grain crust and load up on the veggies while going easy on the meats and cheese.
Maybe the real test of whether pizza is appropriate for top-level athletes, though, is whether Starks, who works as an alumni relations advisor for the Knicks and still travels with the team, would feed his pies to players looking for the extra edge. “In a heartbeat,” he answers. “Guys on the team who didn’t know about what me and Mason were doing, I sent them up [to Custom Fuel], and they called me right away and said, ‘Man, this is crazy.’ They love what we’re doing and they love the food.”