PHOENIX, Ariz. — The Diamondbacks’ executive chef Stephen Tilder is standing at the deli counter of Fry’s Marketplace watching an employee slice two pounds of corned beef very slowly. It's taking a long time. Chef Stephen, as he’s known inside the ballpark, is in the process of developing recipes for hot dogs the size of a large man’s arm. It requires trial, error and strange ingredients. And on this particular January day, it also includes patiently watching a pile of meat grow for ten minutes.
The two things America does best are serving hot dogs at baseball games and making food larger than it has ever been before. By these metrics, the Arizona Diamondbacks are the most patriotic team in the country: Chase Field is known for the 18-inch hot dogs piled high with toppings that can feed entire rows of fans at baseball games. The team calls these gargantuan creations their WOW Items, because each is designed to shock, awe, and compel consumers to blast a picture onto their social media feeds.
This isn’t a trend specific to Arizona. Over the past ten years, novelty foods have exploded into stadiums across the country. Used to lure fans to games (especially when teams aren’t poised to have a winning record), these offerings are another way for franchises to further differentiate the in-game experience from watching the game on your couch. So these hot dogs can’t just be fun to look at. They must be fun to eat, too.
Enter: Chef Stephen.
This classically trained French chef is the mastermind behind the “wow.” He’s been in sports and entertainment since 2005 and with the Diamondbacks for three seasons. His past work includes the Carne Asada Dog and the Chicken Enchilada Dog, and today he’s letting me help him design the items for 2019. After several weeks of brainstorming by email—where my main contribution was suggesting we somehow incorporate pickles—I have finally made it to Arizona for the big day of testing recipes.
“We” decided on several different versions of 18-inch hot dogs: One will be breakfast-themed, one will feature every cut of pork under the sun, one will be based on a Reuben sandwich (my Jewish heart rejoices), one will feature Reuben mac and cheese (I’ll explain later), and one will be covered in a fresh slaw topped with fried mac and cheese.
“I like eggs and I like hot sauce, so I’m looking forward to the All Day Breakfast Dog,” Chef Stephen says as the deli attendant finally hands him the package of corned beef. “I’m looking forward to the Reuben Dog, too, with the mac and cheese and the fried pickles, because it’s literally going to be a party in your mouth. I’m excited about all of them, but those are the two that I’m leaning towards.”
Coming up with ideas for food like this is harder than it seems. This requires more than the kind of slap-dash creativity found in elementary school cafeterias when some knucklehead pours milk on his pizza, top it with gummy bears and dares his friends to eat it. While there are similar elements of madness involved, this requires talent, training, and finesse. These offerings must sound strange enough to puzzle, taste good enough to delight, and look different enough to light up social media without being repulsive. When the Jacksonville Jaguars released a cheeseburger encased in a teal bun a few years ago, Twitter erupted because it looked more radioactive than edible.
Chef Stephen is deeply aware of the careful balance of flavors needed on such a huge scale. He and his staff use hot dog sabermetrics to see what’s trending in the food scene both nationally and in the Phoenix area. They track fans’ social media posts to see where and what people are eating. Chef Stephen is also very careful to be sure what he’s doing is actually new—he Googles every idea he comes up with to be sure there aren’t many other stadiums or restaurants that have already done it. The WOW Items walk a tightrope of taste, where the only thing worse than falling into the valley of public derision is having no one notice they exist at all.
“This is your one item where when someone’s walking through concourse, it’s a head-turner,” Chef Stephen says. “It’s gotta be the most creative, it’s pretty big in size, and it really turns everyone's heads. They’re like, ‘Wow, where did you get that?’”
We make it to the checkout line with everything we need—beer to make the brine for the pickles, more cheese than a Wisconsin state fair, some parsley and onions for garnishes, a bunch of pasta, caraway seeds, the corned beef, and more. We don’t get hot dogs, because believe it or not, you can’t just waltz into a grocery store and buy a hot dog the length of your thigh. Chef Stephen will get those at Schreiner’s, a family-owned business in Phoenix that’s been crafting artisanal sausages and hot dogs for over sixty years and makes the 18-inchers special for him.
We say goodbye in the parking lot of Fry’s and agree to meet at Chase Field the next morning. Chef Stephen tells me to bring my appetite, because we’re going to have a lot of dogs to get through. Tomorrow will either be the best or most concerning day of my gastro-intestinal life.
I am not not scared.
The kitchen of Chase Field is a windowless cavern filled with whisks the size of a catcher’s torso and mixing bowls a tall center fielder could bathe in. A team of chefs feed tens of thousands of people every day out of this place during the season and it has enough ovens and stovetops to prove it. By the time I get there at 9 a.m., Chef Stephen has already prepped all of the various components we’ll need to make each dog, starting with the Whole Hog Dog. It’s a good thing I don’t keep kosher, because I’m pretty sure I’m about to basically inject ten pounds of pig products into my veins.
Chef Stephen is kind of a rock star. While he chops up pork belly he tells me about the heavy metal he listens to that has damaged his hearing. He has tattoos up and down his arms that he covers up with shooting sleeves. He’s already had three energy drinks this morning and is drinking another one as he whips together Béchamel sauces and times the frying of an egg down to the millisecond.
The Whole Hog Dog is ready. As I stare down the barrel of this thing and prepare to take a bite, I realize I’ve signed up for the Ironman of eating. I should’ve stretched.
Chef Stephen and I taste it and both agree that this dog might be too rich even for a WOW Item. We move on to the All Day Breakfast Dog—breakfast stuff is hot these days, he says. Building this thing is more like a construction project than a culinary endeavor. The layers are carefully thought out in terms of how they will support the almost five pounds of food, beginning with a custom bun from a local bakery called Wildflower Bread. Then the dog goes in, followed by a sausage country gravy that Chef Stephen has made. We top that with strips of bacon, hash browns, cheddar cheese, four fried eggs, more bacon, hot sauce, and finally some scallions just to prove that vegetables exist in this hot dog universe.
We taste it. It’s heavenly. I take another bite but stop myself at a third; it’s only the second dog of the day. We make another version using cubed fried potatoes, but agree the hash browns work better. I feel like I might pass out, but we still have three more dogs to go and several versions of each to get through. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
By the end of the day, I’ve eaten parts of eight different massive hot dogs. My favorite has definitely been the Reuben Dog, a hot dog version of the classic sandwich. Chef Stephen turned it into the Reuben Mac and Cheese Dog, mixing the corned beef into a rich mac and cheese that he put on top of the dog, as well as sauerkraut, homemade fried pickles, and a special sauce. He will ultimately name this one the Rueben Some Dirt On It Dog. The S.I. Cover Dog is the third dog we design—shout out Sports Illustrated!—and features an apple slaw with fried mac and cheese on top.
By the end of the morning, I'm pretty sure I can feel my arteries clogging and I’m looking around for the nearest defibrillator just in case my heart gives out. Chef Stephen is turning red and I’m worried that the mix of energy drinks and hot dogs might be taking its toll. We’re breathing heavily, which makes sense, seeing as we are now officially hot dog athletes. Water helps.
But look, it was worth it. These dogs are truly magnificent. I’ll be honest, I’d never looked at a WOW Item before and thought “I need one.” They’ve always seemed more intimidating than appetizing, an exercise in American excess. But after witnessing the process, the amount of thought, and the high quality of the ingredients—not to mention how damn good it all tasted—I know that it would be worth going back out to Arizona just to eat one again. Because sure, this is about excess, but it’s excess meant to be shared and made with self-awareness. It’s a treat. It's a spectacle. It's sports—go for it.
All three will be available at Diamondbacks games at various points during the season and will sell for $30 each. Before the first game, Chef Stephen has the dogs photographed in various stages of completion so that the people working at the concession stands know exactly the order in which to assemble each one. He can’t take any chances on a botched presentation. These are head-turners, baby, and it’s a team effort. After all, there’s no “I” in “WOW.”