Ilissa Shapiro trusts the process — of healthy food.
Shapiro serves as a sous chef for the Philadelphia 76ers, who finally have a mask-ridden Joel Embiid back in the game and are on the verge of besting the Miami Heat in the playoffs, a sentence many Sixers fans probably lost hope of reading for a long time. (Ed. note: They did indeed win and will advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2012.)
She joined the Sixers in August 2017 but grew up in Bala Cynwyd as a fan of all Philly sports teams. As a basketball player herself through middle school, she had a particular connection with the Sixers, even amid their more disappointing seasons.
“It’s a really positive atmosphere,” she said of what it’s like now. “Obviously, this is my first year being with the team, but we all know what the perception of the team was. … Everybody’s excited every day.”
She’s in charge of getting cold breakfast items together in addition to using her background as a pastry cook to take the lead on foods like breads and cakes.
“I do some protein balls, I do more health-based desserts — something we can serve them in-house that’s better than what people are going to get outside,” said Shapiro, who grew up a member of Adath Israel.
She long had an affinity for baking, but didn’t have formal experience or training.
After graduating from Penn State University, where she studied kinesiology with a specialization in athletic training, she moved to Santa Fe, N.M. She had family there who hired her as a hostess at a restaurant. Over a Fourth of July weekend, one of their bakers quit and, knowing Shapiro’s desire to bake but lack of experience, they “threw me back there to see what I could do.”
She must have done well, as they hired her as a full-time baker.
In Philadelphia, she spent two years at Parc Restaurant, where she served as a pastry cook, working in production three days a week making macarons and plating the desserts on the weekends.
With the Sixers, she’s been able to combine baking with her love for sports.
“I’ve been involved in sports really my entire life with the exception of the last eight or so years. And it’s just great to do what I love in that type of environment.”
The Sixers’ food program, overseen by executive chef JaeHee Cho, also a Parc alum, was recently named the top in the NBA by ESPN.
“The Sixers have put food at the center of the team’s daily existence,” the article reads, including a quote from shooting guard J.J. Redick who called it “a top-10 Philadelphia restaurant.”
“I tell the younger guys on the team — this is all they’ve known — this is so rare in the NBA, to have a real chef and a team of people that is working solely to provide you with high-quality meals, it’s incredible,” Redick said.
For Shapiro and her team, there is a strong emphasis on having healthy food in particular at the ready in the training complex in Camden that opened in 2016, where they work.
She makes a banana bread with a modified recipe, using more bananas and less sugar and fat. There are always vegetables available — plus protein like fish, chicken and beef — for the players and staff, and Shapiro makes a variety of fruit smoothies.
However, even if it’s rare, they are open to feedback and requests — like chocolate chip cookies, which Shapiro said is the only thing she makes every day per request. Everything else changes by day.
“We’re trying to get, obviously, the team, and really the whole building, the best food we can,” she said.
Food is what fuels their bodies and helps them recover, she noted, which is especially important given how much work they do.
“Like any athlete, their caloric intake is so much higher than ours,” she said. “They expend so much more energy than an average person.”
While she doesn’t often interact one-on-one with players, she described them as having positive outlooks — not to mention being incredibly tall.
For Shapiro, joining the team and being around the positive energy this season has brought has been one part of a big year for her.
She recently bought a house and moved to Cherry Hill, and is in the midst of finalizing plans for her May wedding.
“It’s been a busy year,” she laughed.
She’s been enjoying the opportunity to be a part of the team while also finding room for personal growth.
Whereas before she only worked in the restaurant and bakery setting with set times for shifts, her schedule with the Sixers has to be more flexible.
“Things get pushed or things get moved, so do we and the ability to adapt has been a growing experience for me, personally,” she said. “We’re always on our toes, and we’ve got to be flexible and roll with the punches.”
For Shapiro, who had a basketball hoop in her driveway and could always be found shooting when she wasn’t at another practice, being a basketball fan and getting used to her role with the food program, which she said is growing and making adjustments, has given her plenty to enjoy.
“I sound like a little girl when I say this, but just being there and being involved,” she said. “We have been lucky enough to have tickets to the game, so I have seen both playoff games; the atmosphere in the arena is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced as a Sixers fan.
“And then coming in the next morning and getting ready to serve breakfast and everybody comes in and everybody’s excited — it’s a really, really positive atmosphere.”