There are two reasons to go to sporting events. One, obviously, is to support a team you love by experiencing the game in-person. You never feel closer to the action or really appreciate the sport the same way as seeing it live.
The other reason is to eat fried food until your eyeballs pop out of your head.
It was this second reason that drew the Extra Mustard writers to the Prudential Center, home of the New Jersey Devils, last weekend. We took in a hockey game and about 3,000 calories apiece while sampling the Prudential Center’s newly-revamped concessions menu, provided by Legends Hospitality (who also feed the crowds at Yankee Stadium, Angel Stadium, Manchester City FC, the Rose Bowl, and more).
Trust us, this ain’t your grandparents hot dogs and Cracker Jacks.
We started with two of the fanciest sandwiches we could find:
Spicy Linguica Sandwich
(Portugese Chimichurri Sauce, fried onions)
Brendan Maloy: This is a sandwich designed to make your breath smell as bad as possible. Between the onions and the garlicky, herbaceous chimichurri, you’re almost certainly going to be in this situation:
That said, you should definitely get this sandwich, as long as you are there by yourself or with someone whose opinion does not matter to you. It is delicious, plus you will get to call it herbaceous, which is fun.
Roasted Cauliflower Sandwich (G’s Sandwich Shop)
(Romesco, pickled vegetables, and paprika)
Nicole Conlan: The most annoying thing about being a vegetarian is having to put up with the weird grey patties that usually constitute a veggie burger. What are you doing, soy? Stop trying to be meat. I’m a vegetarian because I like vegetables, and thankfully, this sandwich offered me plenty. This sandwich consists of spicy charred cauliflower with pickled vegetables on a hoagie roll and ended up being so filling, I could only eat half of it (I promised myself I would take the rest home with me, but halfway back on the train I polished it off, because I have no self-discipline or self-respect).
We took a break between courses to speak with some Legends Hospitality bigwigs about what goes into creating a menu for such a large group of people. Regional Executive Chef Matt Gibson and Prudential Center Executive Chef Andrew Carranza told us that stadium menu creation begins with a round-table discussion between various chefs and Legends visionaries. “Then,” said Gibson, “they let us go to town in the kitchens.”
Carranza said that Legends provides its chefs with a great environment to create menus because they’re relatively hands-off. “It’s very culinary and chef-driven here,” he said. “We play around in the kitchen and test things with our own hands, and we train all our sous-chefs and cooks ourselves. It’s not an assembly line; it’s as much like a restaurant as possible.”
Although the Legends team began with a menu in mind, it’s always updating throughout the season. “There are no static menus. They’re all digital, so we can change it or add things as we come up with new menu items,” said Gibson. Their turnaround time between getting an idea for a new food and debuting it at the stadium? Just two weeks.
We asked what their involvement was in the day-to-day food operations, and as it turns out, it’s extensive. Before every game, they’re totally involved in the food preparations. “For the first two hours before every game, we’re pretty heavy in it,” said Gibson. “It makes the team want to jump on board right away.”
In fact, they’re so involved in the culinary experience at the stadium that we had to cut our interview short so they could get back to their kitchens, but before they left, we asked them what their favorite sandwiches are. Carranza’s answer was close to home: “Easily the Cuban sandwich that we serve right here. It’s just a traditional Cuban sandwich, and you can’t beat that.” Gibson’s preference was a little more exotic: “A cheeseburger from In-N-Out. Extra spread, grilled onions.” Take notes, California readers.
All that talking got our appetites worked up again, so we tracked down a couple more food items:
BBB Rueben (Burke’s Bacon Bar)
Beef pastrami, spicy bacon kraut, Swiss cheese, Russian dressing on marble rye
BM: The fact that this is a concession stand sandwich is mind-boggling. This thing, made with beef pastrami and spicy bacon sauerkraut , tastes better than 95% of ruebens I’ve had in my life. If you like sandwiches and hockey, you should eat this as soon as possible. If you like sandwiches and hate hockey, you should go eat this anyway and learn to like hockey. It’s fun! Also worth noting, this sandwich was named one of Jersey’s 10 Best Dishes of the year. http://www.northjersey.com/food-and-dining-news/dining-news/the-year-s-10-best-dishes-1.1182349
Cold Shoyu Ramen (The One Sushi)
Soy vegetable broth, soft boiled egg, Enoki Mushrooms, Ginger Garlic Oil
One word that you would never usually use to describe hockey is “delicate,” but that’s exactly what this noodle bowl was. With traditional Japanese flavors and a light broth, the Prudential Center has finally given us a stadium food option that doesn’t make you want to take a nap before the third period.
It was time for another breather (we had just eaten two full meals, after all), so we tracked down Devils President Hugh Weber, who was the driving force behind revamping hospitality at the Prudential Center.
“Live events are sensory experiences. You’re not just watching them, you’re experiencing them, in person, using all your senses. And food is a critical component of that,” he said. When Weber came in, there was a six-month selection process before deciding on Legends. “We agreed on two important things. One, the fan experience comes first. And two, whatever we do, we do it well.”
This outlook is reflected in their food preparation. “The whole operation is run by chefs. We make sure that food and flavors come first. The old model used to be strictly about efficiency systems; but that’s not how your grandmother cooked.”
When he joined Legends to decide on the menu, he knew that he wanted the Prudential Center to be a microcosm of New Jersey. “We really strove to represent the state, so the menu is full of flavors and foods that are as diverse as the people.” They also source as much of their food locally as possible and support local businesses when selecting suppliers.
The culinary experience isn’t the only thing that’s been improved under Weber’s supervision; he’s revamped the full fan experience. “We’re trying to create a door-to-door experience for fans. From the moment you leave your house to the moment you get here, we want going to a hockey game to be fun.”
Part of that process includes facilitating travel to the stadium, which was the main reason people weren’t attending games, despite its 20-minute proximity to New York’s Penn Station. “Thirty percent of fans came via mass transit, and people found it daunting to get here.” To make it as easy as possible for fans, they placed Ritz-Carlton-trained hospitality ambassadors at the train station to guide fans to the arena. “We like to say that you’re more likely to get a hug than a handshake from us,” said Weber, which is great, unless you happened to be full of three meals’ worth of food. Which brings us to our next course…
Peanut Bacon Brittle (Burke’s Bacon Bar)
BM: Have you ever had peanut brittle before? Well, this tastes like peanut brittle with some bacon in it. It is certainly not Earth-shattering, but if you are in the mood for peanut brittle, you could certainly do worse. Maybe don’t eat it after eating a Spicy Linguica Sandwich and a BBB Rueben, though; that felt like overkill.
Crispy Jersey Zucchini (House of Spuds)
NC: These fried zucchini slices are made of vegetables, so they’re healthy, right? The vegetables absorb all the calories from the frying process? Jokes aside, I ordered this expecting a measly side dish, but what I got was a full meal’s worth of zucchini fries with sauce. I put it in my to-go container with the Cauliflower Sandwich (and I also ate them on the train. I need help).
Having consumed enough food for six people, we began our bloated walk towards the exit having learned a few very important things. One, there’s a lot more thought going into stadium food than there is in ordering it (why did all this food seem like a good idea, again?). Two, as stadiums strive to create more unique fan experiences, we’ll likely see even more innovative food and hospitality features at our favorite arenas. And three, professional athletes almost certainly don’t eat the same kind of food that is available at their games.