Monday, August 15, 2011

about town
blog
local links

 

current issue > fall 2011 contents

Face to Face: An Interview with Shannon Allen

Shannon and Ray on set at the Seaport Hotel’s “Action Kitchen” on the first day of shooting of The Pre-Game Meal.

Ask Shannon Allen about the glamour of life with her husband, Boston Celtics guard and three-point shot record-holder Ray Allen, and she laughs.

“With four kids and no nanny, I’m in jeans, running around most of the time,” says Allen.

This vivacious mom also commands the kitchen in her Wellesley home, which is built around a tan granite island with matching counters along the perimeter of the room. A vase of fresh orange, yellow, and red flowers brightens up a table and one of the countertops. A guest can pull a tall, cushioned red chair up to the island and chat while Allen tosses fresh fruit with lemon juice for a simple dessert. A back door leads into the garden where she grows the fresh mint that she uses for a garnish. Jars of spices and seasonings, including the hot sauce that she sprinkles into many dishes, line a shelf above the stove.

The Pre-Game Meal, the cooking show that Allen hosts on NECN and Comcast SportsNet, grew from her experience as a performer as well her interest in making healthy meals for her family: Sons Ray, III (“Rayray”), 6; Walker, 4; Wynn, 2; and daughter, Tierra, 18. Tierra recently graduated from Wellesley High School, where she played basketball as well as volleyball. She continues the family sports legacy into college, but not in basketball. It was her volleyball skills that impressed Quinnipiac University, which recruited her for its team. The Allens’ large, extended family and many friends, including Allen’s teammates, often join them for meals.

Many guests on the show come from the Allens’ extensive network. In one episode, Ray’s Celtics teammate Rajon Rondo reveals that he thought of becoming a chef before the NBA recruited him. He demonstrates an “un-fried” (oven baked) chicken dish. Shannon surprises him by pulling out a skillet of fresh cornbread, Rondo’s favorite side dish, which apparently brought good luck to the team in 2008. Glen (“Big Baby”) Davis of the Celtics, Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox, and Wes Welker of the New England Patriots have also made appearances. So have chefs Ming Tsai and Lydia Shire.

Shannon and good friend Sue Brady (Mix 104.1 radio personality and Wellesley resident) goof around on set while making mini pizzas and homemade cannolis.

Shannon, née Shannon Walker Williams, first learned performance skills as a member of “Shades,” a group of female singers which recorded with the Motown label. She grew up in central Connecticut, graduating from Mercy High School in Middletown before attending Northeastern University’s Music Business program. When Ray played with the Seattle SuperSonics, Shannon landed a role in the film Girlfight and another on the TV show Sex and the City. The couple moved to the Boston area in 2007 when Ray joined the Boston Celtics.

As the Celtics played in the NBA finals in 2008, the Allens found themselves in the midst of a personal drama. Their second son, Walker, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Since then, the Allens have become active supporters of the Joslin Diabetes Center and Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Shannon ran the Boston Marathon in 2008 with a group that fights against childhood obesity. Ray’s mom, Flo Allen-Hopson, ran in 2010 and 2011 to raise funds for the Joslin Center.

Shannon has become adept at managing Walker’s diabetes. “It’s time for your shots,” she says, as the boy scampers into the kitchen and playfully swats his mom. She opens a kit, pulls out his dose of insulin, and finishes the injection in less than a minute.

“Go shoot some baskets in the yard,” she suggests, but he wriggles away and heads down the stairs to the basement playroom, where Shannon’s aunt is in charge.

This family scene almost never happened because Shannon initially had some misgivings about dating Ray, who is six feet five and a half inches.

“You’re tall, and I’m small,” Shannon told him (she is five feet four inches). Fifteen years later, she is glad she never scared him away. Now, family time even includes special appearances by both Ray and his mom on The Pre-Game Meal.

WellesleyWeston Magazine: What made you want to do a cooking show?

Shannon Allen: I dreamed this up six years ago. We were living in Seattle, and I was doing TV and film. I was in Century City, a legal drama, but CBS ended up canceling the show. Then I found out I was pregnant with Ray Ray and I knew I wasn’t going back and forth to L.A. any more. Every day, I made a healthy meal for Ray [Sr.]. We had a conversation about it every day. I started thinking, ‘I wonder if people really know how important a healthy meal is?’ And Ray is an example of what it can do. He’s a specimen! I took my idea out of the cage and onto the stage.

WWM: So Ray influenced your eating habits?

Allen: I was in a girl group when I met Ray. It was coffee, Coca Cola, and chicken wings. We recorded on the graveyard shifts because studio time was less expensive then. We’d finish at 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning. I weighed about 89 to 90 pounds because I was traveling and eating poorly. Ray was the one who taught me that to have stamina, you need to eat a healthy diet. He was very regimented about what you eat before the game and after the game. He would say, ‘I can’t eat fast food and then play basketball.’ I learned from him that you have to bring fresh fruit with you, and you don’t drink soda and eat Cheetos.

Shannon is joined on set by world famous chef, TV star, cookbook author, and food allergy authority, Ming Tsai.

WWM: How did you meet Ray?

Allen: We met in 1996, the night before my group’s first single was going to be released in the stores. One of my friends was dating Savion Glover, who had a show, Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk, on Broadway. I hated going out – I’m not a partier. I don’t drink and don’t smoke. But my friends wanted to go, so I said yes. Every time I turned around, a tall drink of water was staring at me. I wanted to move around the room, but every time I did, he was right there. I thought, ‘Something tells me that if I walk by and don’t say anything, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.’” We introduced ourselves. He said, ‘I’m going to be drafted tomorrow.’ I said, ‘Are we at war?’ That’s how aware of sports I was. He said, ‘No, into the NBA.’…We went to another party at the Mirage. We talked all night long. I called my dad when I got home. It was about 3:00 in the morning and I woke him up, but I said, ‘I met the sweetest guy tonight! He said he played for [University of] Connecticut. Do you know him? His name is Ray Allen.’ My dad put down the phone and came back on. ‘Do I know him? Of course I know him!’ His picture had only been on our refrigerator for the last four years.

WWM: How did Walker’s diagnosis with diabetes affect your family’s eating habits?

Allen: When Walker was diagnosed, we were already eating healthy. In Seattle, it was easier – that’s where we started to go to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods to buy organic milk and veggies. It was a change. I went into the cabinets and threw out the [junk food]…all of Ray’s go-to snacks after he did a really hard workout. We started to feel better and live better. With Walker, we started counting carbs, weighing foods, and eliminating things from our diet. We even tried going gluten free for a few months. But I have a friend who has done research in child psychology, and she said kids who are so restricted end up wanting to sneak food or having other problems. We wanted to let him eat like a normal kid but control his insulin. We let him eat mac and cheese, and keep soda around in case his sugar goes low. It has made a real difference in his self-esteem. I like it when people meet our kids and ask, ‘Which one has diabetes?’

WWM: Each show seems filled with healthy cooking tips and family friendly recipes. What message do you want to send to viewers about the meals they eat?

Allen: I’m a busy mom who gets it done, but I don’t pretend to be a chef. I contacted real chefs and nutritionists – people who really know food. We do simple food for families, but it can be elegantly prepared. I had Lydia Shire preparing chicken thighs with rice – it was unbelievable chicken thighs with rice, the best I’ve ever had…Diabetes is the pandemic of our time, and it’s related to obesity. If I get one or two viewers to eat healthier, it’s worth it.

WWM: I see scenes on the show that you shop at Roche Bros and bring in Wellesley neighbors, such as Ming Tsai, as guests. Do you use other Wellesley connections in the show?

Allen: I’m a creature of habit. I go to Quebrada for coffee, to Roche Brothers, to the veggie department at Whole Foods. My favorite restaurant is the Cottage. I’m on a first name basis with a lot of people. I’d like to film a baking scene at Quebrada in the next season.

Chefs Todd and Jason of The Cottage in Wellesley joined Shannon in the Action Kitchen for a food demo on creative ways to cut and display fruit to inspire kids to get excited about eating more fruits and vegetables.

WWM: Do you have a role model who is responsible for your interest in cooking?

Allen: My dad cooked dinner every night. He had a garden and grew everything – tomatoes, corn, peppers, squash. My mom is Cape Verdean, a realtor who worked about 90 hours a week. She was good at appetizers and baking and did a lot of the holiday cooking. My dad was the meat and potatoes guy. He had more time because he taught school. But I was busy with my singing career, and I never had to cook. My family always did it for me. When Ray and I got serious, I learned to cook from his mother Flo. She spent a lot of time in food service, setting up fast food restaurants on Air Force bases where the family lived. There’s a little wisdom and a dollop of love in all her dishes. She got into the kitchen with me. I was her sous chef for 10 years. She was really generous about sharing every recipe and not leaving anything out so I would learn to make the things that Ray liked.

WWM: Did having a daughter at Wellesley High School help you connect to the community?

Allen: Very much. When you have a child in high school, you learn about the community from your kids. She did cotillion, senior prom, and played two sports, basketball and volleyball. Now I see that I can sign up the younger kids for sports and see the progression to high school. We went to the games and people were excited to see Ray in the stands, but they respected him as a dad cheering for his kid like everyone else…Rayray [Ray, III] is in kindergarten in the Wellesley schools. They had a field day and he came home saying he ate an orange Popsicle. That’s all he would say about it. Then about four people stopped me the next day to tell me about him. At the race, he took off like a rocket and was so far ahead of the other kids that he was doing zig zags to the finish line! He just wanted to run.

WWM: You trained in music at Northeastern and sang professionally. Do you expect to continue music in the future?

Allen: I’ll never stop singing. Most of the time right now, I sing to the kids and along to the radio. I did get to sing “At Last,” an Etta James song, at Symphony Hall, for the Joslin Center. It was amazing to have so many instruments playing behind me, all these talented musicians with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

WWM: What’s next? Are you where you want to be in your life?

Allen: I’m happy with the show – the planning and the strategy. I’m having fun. I love working – it’s who I am. I have three kids under the age of six and no nanny, but I can still do something that I like to do. We have a business called LAB Entertainment – Life After Basketball. We did a documentary about an orphanage in China for blind children started by two French jazz musicians. It’s an amazing story. We’re hoping to release it at film festivals. I love hearing good ideas. If it inspires, I’m interested in it.

 

Spicy Shrimp Salad in a Tortilla Bowl
Serves 4

 

 

 

© 2011 Elm Bank Media | Beth Furman, Publisher | Beth@ElmBankMedia.com