SBJ/July 17-23, 2017/In Depth

Chef: Personalization turns food events into an experience

Chef Ming Tsai has participated in food events around the Masters and Super Bowl.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Award-winning chef Ming Tsai has received accolades for his restaurants and cooking shows like “Simply Ming,” making him one of the biggest names at any food festival where he appears. He is also an avid lover of sports, playing on the squash team while he studied at Yale, as well as developing a love for the New England Patriots and Boston Red Sox while living in the Northeast. Tsai has often combined those two loves, cooking at events like the Super Bowl and the Masters frequently. Tsai spoke with SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Ian Thomas about why he thinks more sports events are reaching out to chefs like him, how their expertise can make a difference in an attendees’ experience, and what sports properties can do better when they try to move into the culinary world.

Why do you think more and more sporting events are branching out into the culinary space?

TSAI:
There’s no secret that the buzzword for this whole movement is demographics. The demo of people that love wine, love food, love to travel, also love golf, also love going to the Masters or the Super Bowl or the Kentucky Derby, and it’s no secret that regardless of the event, sporting or non-sporting, requires food and beverage. Period. Traditionally back in the day you’d go back to the big ballrooms in the hotel and they would make the food, and there would be no real focus on it. That has completely changed in the last 20 years.

No chef is going to be the highlight of the sporting event they’re cooking at, but they can be part of elevating the experience. For example, a chef is not the highlight of the Masters. But the highlight of the Masters, if you can have access to it, is their private club Berckmans Place. There are six restaurants that only run for that week, and if you get a Berckmans pass, which costs thousands of dollars and is very limited, the experience is incredible.

Even at the non-high end, do you think there is an expectation from attendees for more when it comes to food and beverage at events now?

TSAI:
Food and beverage is more than just a perk, it’s no longer just a sideline item. It’s now a focus of events, which from a chef’s point of view, it’s fantastic. It’s nice to be included and, while we’re not as important as Jordan Spieth taking part, I think it’s a value add for fans.

I think there is an expectation for what people get when they go to something that features a high-end chef. It used to be dinner by the chef and they would come in and talk about the food. … Then it became dinner demos, and you would demo each dish, which is still really cool. Now the expectation is more. They want a mixologist doing a funky drink, and demoing that as well. Then there’s a musician, and the dishes are designed around the music.

What happens when you can’t add another element to it? How do you keep these events from becoming stale?

TSAI:
It’s still about personalization, and people feeling like they got touched by that person. There’s a huge difference when you can keep it to that 40 to 60 people and you really get to know the chef and the full experience, versus when there are a couple thousand people and it’s like you’re at any food and wine event.

One thing about chefs is that we’re very approachable and happy to talk with people about food or whatever they’d like. It’s not like trying to meet Michael Jordan at an event he’s featured at; we’re pretty much just standing there at the table.

What’s the draw for you to take part in sports-related cooking events?

TSAI:
I’m a huge golf nut, so to be able to go to the Masters and Augusta and cook there is incredible. Every time I walk the course it’s a dream come true. I’ve walked that course probably 20 times now, and to go to the Super Bowl, especially if the Pats are in it? That’s always fun.

Chefs are competitive by nature, and a lot of us played sports. The only opportunity for us is when we go on “Next Iron Chef,” or “Iron Chef” or “Top Chef” and those kinds of shows. It really combines competitiveness with the act of sport, but with knives, cutting boards and sauté pans. The adrenaline rush that chefs have during service, getting in the weeds and getting out of it, that’s just like any tournament. You’re under the gun, sweating, and after service you feel like you just ran a half-marathon. There’s a lot of respect between athletes and chefs.

What can the sports world understand better about chefs and how to make these events run better?

TSAI:
Steph Curry could come to the Garden and play, it’s not that much different … it’s still a basketball court. When we go to Pebble Beach or somewhere else, it’s completely different. … Some chefs demand to travel with their kitchens and people start to ask, “Why does this cost $250,000?” That’s what it takes to do all of this. … The sports world needs to realize we’re like pro athletes. We have to prepare, we have to have the right equipment, have to have the right people in place, and we have to have the right ingredients. I don’t care how good you are as a chef, if it’s not sashimi quality salmon, we can’t just put soy sauce on it and hope people don’t get food poisoning. … The sports world just needs to realize this should be a serious line item to the event. People really look forward to the food, and it’s what people talk about.

What have you enjoyed about working alongside teams and athletes?

TSAI:
As much as a lot of chefs love to play golf or tennis, there are just as many athletes that love to cook and eat. It’s really fun to get people out of their element. One of my favorite episodes of “Simply Ming” was with Big Papi [David Ortiz], on the Green Monster wall, cooking up some chicken using his salsa with Fenway behind us. I mean are you kidding me? I was pinching myself. And because of food, I consider Papi a friend now. And I don’t think just being a fan of the Red Sox would ever help you become a friend of him, but it’s because of the love of food. I remember after we met, I told him I could cook this for him at home, and he said, “Can you come tonight?” I said how many people, and done. That was 2003, when we met, and we’ve been friends since. Food and beverage open more doors for all of us than any other ticket.

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