Photo by Chris Casella

Center Stage: Nationwide Arena

Each month, travelling chef and (614) contributor Will Johnston will take on a new job somewhere in the food chain, exploring the many stops on the journey from farm to fork to your face. In this month’s installment, he crashes the kitchens at Nationwide Arena, home of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and learns what it takes to keep one of Columbus’s cultural hubs fed.

The stage (pronounced “stazhje”, rhymes with “barrage”) is the culinary world’s answer to the unpaid internship, but, unlike the temp and entry-level affairs afforded in the corporate world, the stage actually serves a purpose. Cooking—with the exception of sous vide—does not take place in a vacuum, and despite the popularity of those 30-second Vine recipes, it’s not something one can learn on the internet, no matter how many times you watch that loop of “Cheesy Bacon Bombs” being made. For the stagiaire, temporarily being in another chef’s kitchen is about gaining new perspective; it’s about experiencing new techniques and ingredients and taking them back to your kitchen and sharing them with other cooks. It’s the culinary circle of life and the preferred means of transmitting food culture in the cooking community since Escoffier was slugging it out in 19th century Paris. Staging is about keeping your eyes and your mind open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. Staging is about saying yes, or, more specifically “Yes Chef!”

First Period

Photo by Chris Casella

Photo by Chris Casella

If I’m being totally honest, I’m not particularly convinced that there is much for me to learn at an arena. In my mind, arena food is peanuts, Cracker Jacks, and hot dogs. For any experienced cook, the greatest hits of most stadium food won’t pose much of a challenge. But again, I remind myself to stay awake, stay open, because who knows? Maybe Chef Joe and his team might surprise me.

Chef Ditri meets me at security, who, while friendly, are a bit perplexed as to why I’m claiming to be from a magazine yet trying to get an entire bag full of very sharp knives into their building. Chef Joe, rushing to my rescue, is the image of a classically trained chef: black pants, starched white coat, and the subtle hair crease that suggests that at some point today he was wearing a toque, those tall paper hats from Ratatouille.

After a quick how-do-you-do, Chef Joe and I are off. He tells me that there is a game that night and that the doors open in just over an hour. As we talk, his walkie-talkie crackles from his pocket, something about a malfunctioning walk-in cooler, one of a few dozen under Chef Joe’s care. He quickly calls back, instructing whoever is on the other end that he’ll take care of it, another item in the long list of things he has to maintain. We move quickly, first touring the basement kitchens where I’ll be working the next day, then moving on to the lounges—one for press and another for season ticket holders—then to the “Club” level seating, and finally to the upper “Sky Terrace” and suite level. Each floor contains a kitchen, as well as any number of smaller food service stands, concession booths, and bar areas where Nationwide patrons can find sustenance during a hockey game or concert. Chef Joe tells me that it’s his job to see that every part in this very complex machine is running smoothly and efficiently. After an hour we’ve touched every kitchen, at each stop checking in with staff members and cooks, all of whom Chef Joe knows by name.

I’ve managed restaurants and kitchens my entire working life, so I know what a challenge it can be to keep just one kitchen running well. Chef Joe is doing it for over 30 individual kitchens, lounges, and stands. Keeping track of the inventory alone would be a full time job. I’m impressed.

Second Period

Photo by Chris Casella

Photo by Chris Casella

A couple days later, I arrive back at NWA for the actual stage. Its 11 a.m., faceoff is in eight hours, and Chef John DiGiovanni’s kitchen is already in full swing.

The space is a long, galley style kitchen, bounded by a massive walk-in cooler on one side and a dry storage/pastry shop on the other. There is a hot line, with ovens, a sauté station, and the biggest tilt skillet I’ve ever seen. At one end is a massive dish room where two porters are hard at work on a mountain of dirties. There are cooks everywhere, all dressed impeccably in white coats, hands moving lightning-fast as they work through piles of mise en place. All this activity for burgers and chicken fingers? I think.

In the middle of this action, directing traffic, is Chef John. Classically trained, he’s honed his skills at the upscale resorts of Disney properties in Orlando. Those places are no joke, as they combine the already insanely elaborate standards of Walt and Company with the anal retentiveness of old school chefs; thinks ice sculptures and insane 1,000-person buffets. After a quick tour Chef John shows me a bulletin board on the back wall with a carefully placed grid of order forms and menus.

“This is where we keep track of everything that is going to come out of the kitchen today,” he explains, gesturing towards the papers, laid out in chronological order. “We started this morning with the player’s breakfast,” he says, showing me a protein-heavy menu that was carefully prepared between the chefs and the strength and conditioning coaches. “Next, we will move on to lunch, and this is our menu for the press lounge, and another menu for the Red Line Lounge, our buffet for ticket holders in the lower bowl. That menu will serve a few hundred people tonight. We also handle all of the catering that goes on during games and concerts.”

As I look at the menus a couple of things become immediately clear: for starters, this is an incredibly complicated operation with a huge number of moving parts. And, as I look over these menus, with items like butternut squash ravioli and handmade beef pot pie, I realize that what’s going on in the kitchens at Nationwide Arena is a little bit more involved than I thought. So much for peanuts and crackerjacks.

Chef John hands me off to Chef Tony, his cold line supervisor, a quiet yet confident looking cook who has been with the team for four seasons. “Okay,” Tony says, taking a brief pause from carefully cutting vegetables, “our first job for today will be making sushi for the players’ and coaches’ wives. You’ve rolled sushi before, right?” I have to admit that, despite a lifetime in kitchens, my experience with preparing raw fish in any form is rather limited. Tony takes this, and all of the other obstacles that come our way that morning, in stride and quickly demonstrates the technique involved in preparing a California roll.

While I never approach Jiro-level quality, I do end up with a few decent California rolls. It seems that there is plenty to learn in the Blue Jackets’ kitchens.

Third Period

Photo by Chris Casella

Photo by Chris Casella

Next, it’s starting on some post-game food with Chef Kenny for the players who always enjoy a “snack” after the game. (The players are big guys, and what they call a “snack” is known as “a big damn meal” to you and I.)

We begin by finishing off a large batch of roasted carrot soup. The soup, which is destined for guests in the lounge, is rich and savory, spiced with vadouvan, an Indian spice blend made with a thick base of onions, garlic, and shallots. This, again, is a preparation I’ve never made, but Kenny patiently walks me through the process, including a discussion about when using a spice blend like this is appropriate. As we work on the soup, and throughout the rest of the shift, I notice that Kenny tastes his food… a lot. All good cooks taste what they are working on, but Kenny zips around the line, tasting his food as well as the work of all the other cooks who work under him, pausing to praise a dish or to suggest adjusting this or that seasoning.

“I’m like Rumpelstiltskin,” Kenny tells me, when he notices my fascination with his almost constant tasting and correction, “and I turn straw into gold. A big part of what I do, what we all do, is take ordinary product or ordinary recipes, and spin them into something new, something better.”

Kenny’s words, the way he sees himself in relation to his guests and the other people he cooks for, are still resounding in my head when Chef John tells me that it’s time for my last station for the day, a shift manning the buffet at the Red Line Lounge.

“You know how to set up a toque, right?” he asks, referring again to those tall, cylindrical paper hats. I sheepishly tell him no, that I’ve never worn one and didn’t realize there was a trick to it. He sizes up my rather large dome, adjusting the paper cinch on the interior of my new cap, fixing it in place with a staple, and placing it on my head.

“Now you look sharp,” he says as he moves around me quickly, making a b-line for the lounge.

I take my place on the buffet next to Kenny. Chef John informs me that we will be working together to serve a pulled pork bao bun, the steamed bread popularized in the U.S. by uber-chef David Chang and his Momofuku team. Each bun is topped with a thick slab of Neuske’s bacon and a dallop of hoisin barbeque sauce. And not to editorialize too much, but these little suckers are good. Like really good.

About an hour before faceoff, the doors to the lounge are opened and guest begin to stream into the buffet line. Within minutes the line stretches at least 50 people deep, and Kenny seems to know every person in it. He greets some with a smile, others with a joke. He asks one woman about her new baby and another gentleman about his wife’s apparent absence. I look up and down the service line and notice that the other cooks, each at their own station, seem to have a similar relationship with the people they are serving, talking and laughing with them they way one might with dinner guests in their home.

“A lot of these people are season ticket holders,” Kenny explains, “so we see them about 45 times a year. Do you eat anywhere that many times in a year? No way. Nobody does. So, after awhile, they aren’t just guest or strangers anymore. They become like family.”

Behind the line(s) at the NWA is much more than peanuts and hotdogs. There is patience and precision in Tony’s sushi. There is the creativity Kenny displayed with his vadouvan soup. And, in no short supply, there is care and attention for people, be they staff, players or fans, like I saw in every aspect of that kitchen. So next time, maybe wear your toque to the game, and afterwards, toss it onto the ice, because the culinary hat trick at Nationwide Arena is worth celebrating.