SBJ/April 7-13, 2014/In Depth

Chefs share their passion for sports, food

For chef and restaurant owner Marc Forgione, it started with a knish that his grandfather always used to get for him at Shea Stadium when he was a kid.

“I don’t know why, but he did,” Forgione said. “I think there are just certain things that go hand in hand.”

Chef and Giants fan Marc Forgione (left) and a friend enjoy a visit to MetLife Stadium.
Photo by: The Connect Group
Forgione, who won the Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef” in 2010, was born and raised in New York. As he developed a passion for food, he also developed a passion for the New York Giants. Nowadays, as he sits down at MetLife Stadium to watch them play, one of the first things he does is buy a cold beer and sausage with peppers.

Food and football, he said, is something very nostalgic. “Certain things remind you of certain events.”

Forgione’s passion for sports and food was on display two years ago, when he went on “Good Morning America” wearing his Giants jersey and created dishes inspired by football ahead of Super Bowl XLVI.

Those passions represent the perfect combination from Lonny Sweet’s standpoint. The founder of The Connect Group specializes in food-centric events, with past credits including the The 50 Yard Lounge at this year’s Super Bowl in New York and Jets and Chefs in partnership with the New York Jets.

Sweet said that highlighting chefs at such events gets even better when the chefs can relate to everything from the
grill to the gridiron. “Food is very much an art and when you put passion into it, it literally comes through in their food,” he said.

Just like Forgione, many top chefs are passionate fans who have their favorite sports, teams and stadium foods — even if their tastes might be a little different from the average fan. And, as expected, they’re quick to point out where food offerings could be improved, whether they’re participating directly in a sports project or just taking in games as a fan.

Michelle Bernstein, an award-winning chef from Miami, said that sports has always been a big part of her life. After marrying a man from Wisconsin, she is now somewhat torn between the Green Bay Packers and Dolphins. She also enjoys soccer and will root for Argentina during the World Cup.

At sporting events, chef Michelle Bernstein would like to see more healthy alternatives and dishes geared toward women.
Photo by: Gio Alma
Bernstein, who was honored by the Dolphins with the NFL Hispanic Heritage Leadership Award in September, was one of five chefs who put together lunch and dinner menus for Collectors Club members at this year’s Sony Open. Her menu choices were influenced by the hot temperatures in Key Biscayne, Fla.

“What I’m trying to do is to create really fresh recipes that people can come and sit and eat outside and just feel a little bit cooler when they are done eating,” Bernstein said.

When she’s attending a sports event as a fan, Bernstein seeks out healthier alternatives. “Everything is delicious and it satisfies the craving, but it’s the one thing that I wish to find whenever I’m there. The one day I’m trying to start watching my weight a little bit, I come to a game and then it’s all kind of ruined,” she said.

Despite an increasing number of women attending sporting events, Bernstein finds that most of the food offerings are still geared toward men. “I don’t think they think about us girls as much,” Bernstein said. “I think they are starting to and I think it’s getting better. I would really love to do food for the ladies and there are more women fans than ever.”

Louisiana native Kelly English describes himself as bleeding black and gold for the New Orleans Saints and red and blue for Ole Miss. But these days, English plies his trade in Memphis where he has teamed up with the Grizzlies on a couple of projects at FedEx Forum. He runs the premium Lexus Lounge as well as a concession stand that carries the same name as his new restaurant, The Second Line.

“I’ve really tried to think about what I would like to see as a fan,” said English, who in 2009 was named “Best New Chef” by Food & Wine magazine. “When I go to a game, I really don’t want to miss any of the action. That’s the No. 1 motivator in some of my decisions, but I also don’t want to eat crap.”

Chicago native Dale Talde said that before he started cooking, he wanted to be a basketball player. He maintains an allegiance to his hometown Bulls, but now pulls for the Brooklyn Nets as well. That’s because Talde opened his first restaurant in Brooklyn in 2012, so he knows what the team means to the borough.

What is Talde’s favorite food at the game? If it’s a ballpark, it’s Italian beef. And take it from this top chef: Wait until later in the game before you get the dish.

“I wait a minute,” Talde said. “You wait until like the third or fourth inning of the ballgame, so the Italian beef had
When he’s away from his restaurant, chef Hugh Acheson enjoys tailgating at Georgia Bulldogs football games.
Photo by: The Legacy Agency
time to sit. In the beginning, they just put the beef in and cook it up and it’s good but it’s not great.”

In Athens, Ga., Canadian expat Hugh Acheson is discovering the fascination of college football. The owner of 5&10 restaurant enjoys tailgating before Georgia Bulldogs games and prefers seasonal products at his gatherings.

“Tailgating time — late August, early September — is tomato season for me, so a massive tomato salad with some barbecue pork ribs and fresh corn salad, something like that. Lots of vegetables,” said Acheson, who, like English and Talde, is represented by Peter Raskin at The Legacy Agency.

While Acheson sees the change toward more sustainable and better quality food at sports venues, he said many venues need to change more aggressively because the demand is there.

“People realize that people are willing to spend money on better offerings,” he said.

HJ Mai writes for SportsBusiness Daily Global.

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