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Top chefs spice up ballpark fare
Minor League concessions go upscale with high cuisine
07/30/2010 11:30 AM ET
Top Chef finalist Bryan Voltaggio made a big splash in Frederick.
Top Chef finalist Bryan Voltaggio made a big splash in Frederick. (Frederick Keys)
At Tuesday's Frederick Keys game, peanuts and CrackerJacks were replaced by heirloom tomato gazpacho "Dipping Dots" rock shrimp Ceviche featuring petite cilantro.

The occasion for such a work of gastronomic art was Volt Night, held in honor of local culinary celebrity (and Top Chef finalist) Bryan Voltaggio. In addition to being honored with his own bobblehead and throwing out the game's first pitch, the Frederick native took over a concession stand at Harry Grove Stadium.

The aforementioned Dipping Dots-accentuated gazpacho was part of an ambitious and highly anomalous ballpark menu that featured items such as truffle oil popcorn, lamb hot dogs with chow chow and a soft-shell crab sandwich with pickle fennel-cucumber slaw. Everything was priced between $2 and $10, giving fans the chance to enjoy the cuisine of a chef who usually operates in far more rarified environs. Tables at Voltaggio's Volt Restaurant, located in downtown Frederick, must be booked months ahead of time. A six-course tasting menu costs $95.

The fans turned out in droves for Volt Night, with more than 7,000 passing through the gates (more than double the team's typical Tuesday night crowd). A sizable contingent arrived before game time to ensure that it would receive a bobblehead (limited to 1,000), and lines for the Volt concession stand snaked through the concourse and lasted from before the first pitch until the game's final out.

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"[Voltaggio's appearance on] Top Chef meant a lot to this town, because all the other contestants were working at a restaurant in a huge city somewhere," said Keys director of broadcasting and public relations Adam Pohl. "Volt has become a destination, and people are visiting Frederick just so they can eat there."

The team approached Voltaggio about staging a night in his honor, and he was receptive to the idea. The bobblehead and first pitch weren't enough, however -- Voltaggio wanted to set up shop at the ballpark.

"Originally, we were thinking on a smaller scale and suggested that we hold a fundraiser in our club area. That seats 78 people -- we could sell tickets at a big per-plate price and sell it out," said Pohl. "But Bryan wanted to work on a much broader scale. I think he still has that Top Chef mentality, where you are given a crazy idea and then have to find a way to make it work. So, in this case, the challenge was 'Run the concession stand at a baseball stadium.'"

The overwhelmingly positive response to Voltaggio's efforts has the club thinking of a sequel, perhaps even as a separate event that takes place while the team is on the road. No matter the specifics, however, Volt Night made it clear that fans will go out of their way to sample high-quality cuisine at the ballpark.

"We had our highest internet sale of the year [on Tuesday], showing that this is something that people were planning to attend well in advance," said Pohl. "It got a lot of press, not just in Frederick but in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and people came from all over."

Much more than meets the eye

One of the primary appeals of Volt Night was that it brought accessible fine dining to that traditional low-cuisine mecca: the ballpark. When one thinks of stadium concessions, especially at the Minor League level, it is likely that dollar dogs and plastic cups of domestic draft spring to mind. It is a world of prodigious caloric content in which seemingly everything that can be deep fried eventually will be.

But Volt Night is perhaps not as anomalous as it would first appear. Though dogs, burgers, fries and funnel cakes will always be ballpark staples, many teams are taking steps to improve the quality and variety of the food on offer. In some cases, these efforts are presided over by fully certified executive chefs.

Two teams that employ just such an individual on the front office roster are the Gwinnett Braves and Lehigh Valley IronPigs, International League clubs that play in sparkling 21st-century facilities (Coolray Field and Coca-Cola Park, respectively).

Jan Giejda, in his first season with the IronPigs, admits that he never envisioned himself as an employee of a Minor League Baseball team.

"I was a little skeptical at first, because I had some preconceived notions regarding ballpark food and didn't want to be making hot dogs all the time," said Giejda, a graduate of the renowned culinary program at Johnson and Wales University. "But once I got here and took a tour of the facilities, I was really impressed."

Giejda's primary responsibilities involve planning and preparing food for the stadium's dugout suites, party porches, luxury suites and picnic areas. Those who book seats in these areas order in advance from an online menu that includes everything from sashimi to fruit and cheese plates, from artichoke dip to three-foot subs.

"I had worked as an executive chef at a restaurant before, but at a restaurant you're serving anywhere from 50 to 500 people a day," said Giejda. "Here it's 1000 to 1500, so definitely a lot more organization is needed."

During the season, this means working long hours as a matter of routine. Giejda says that 15-hour days are the norm during homestands, with early-morning paperwork giving way to a seemingly endless series of tasks that can last until a game's final out and beyond.

The day-in, day-out nature of the baseball season challenges all who work in the sport, including the chefs. "Baseball's the toughest sport [in which to be a chef] -- it's just a grind," asserts Gwinnett Braves chef Blake Stembridge, who has also worked in football, hockey and basketball. "In baseball, you have to roll all the prep and gameday work into the same day -- you don't have five days to prepare."

But one of the positive aspects of the relentless schedule is that the kinks can be ironed out fairly quickly.

"The beginning of the season is rough, with new menus and new employees," said Stembridge. "But after the first homestand, it starts to feel comfortable."

Success with the signature sandwich

One of Stembridge's biggest successes during the G-Braves' inaugural season of 2009 was the Knucksie, the signature sandwich at Phil Niekro's restaurant in the park's concourse. It is described thusly: "House-smoked pulled BBQ pork piled high with pickle chips, caramelized onions, two kinds of BBQ sauce and coleslaw, served on a toasted corn muffin."

The Knucksie name is a reference to Niekro's signature pitch, the knuckleball.

"I had asked Phil what his favorite sandwich is, and he said something about a Montecristo," said Stembridge, a Pro II certified chef. "But I wanted to do something different, and as is often the case I started thinking about barbeque. ... It's a process, putting that type of thing together -- it takes a lot of experimenting until you get it right."

The Knucksie has been a certifiable smash in Gwinnett County and has since been added to the menu at Atlanta's Turner Field as well. Earlier this month it was featured at the 2010 Major League All-Star Game as part of a Taste of the Majors exhibition.

"I've tried a lot of things, some have worked and some haven't, but [the Knucksie] took off right from the start," said Stembridge.

Giejda is in his first season and hasn't yet had the chance to add his own creations to the ballpark menu, but he speaks enthusiastically about a blue cheese-stuffed bacon-wrapped hot dog he hopes to serve in 2011. And after that, who knows?

"My goal is to raise the expectations more and more, and to have people excited about what we're doing," he said. "I always want there to be a 'wow' factor."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
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