Belly of the Beast: A Tour of Safeco Field with Executive Chef Dave Dekker

Earlier this year, I attended an event with celebrity chefs Tom Douglas and Rick Bayless. Keeping a sharp eye on the audience, I've learned...sometimes who's in the as compelling as the talent on stage. Towards the end of the event, I spot two guys in chef jackets, bearing the Mariner's baseball team logo. "What's up with those jackets?" A broad smile is quick to follow.

As luck would have it, I met Dave Decker, the Executive Chef of Safeco Field, home of the Mariner's baseball team. He jokes, "Most chefs do 100-200 covers a night, I do 45,000!"

Truth be told, when you think of the trajectory of a chef, I never thought about sports. I was quick to learn, stadium food is big business. Beyond hot dogs and garlic fries, the stadium houses multiple restaurants, the "golden ticket" Diamond Club (more on that later), and when the team is away, a slew of private events. Dinner for 1,200 on the field? He makes it happen.

Before being recruited for the Mariners, Dave was an executive chef for 5-Diamond Hotels. Overseeing large-scale operations with multiple moving parts? That's his specialty.

When I asked, why baseball? Why not football or basketball? It's evident he has a love for challenges, and managing moving parts. Major league baseball teams play 162 games a year. From April through the end of September, they host over 80 home games. At that pace, it puts a lot of pressure on the kitchens. He's a high energy guy who thrives on the pressure.

For baseball, the kitchen crew typically has 1-2 days to prep for games. Football...there's only sixteen games/season. With just eight home games, "In football, you have a whole week to prep!"  Baseball's a more challenging season, and for him, that's the appeal.

Overseeing a seasonal staff of 150 is not easy. Open hiring calls, Farestart, and the Millionaire Club provide the bulk of his staff. Every kitchen interview begins with a single test, "Show me how you cut an onion." If they don't use "the claw" to protect their fingertips, he moves on to the next candidate, or finds them a place in concessions.

What's a typical day like? "On game days, I don't really cook. I govern...and do a lot of paperwork." Overseeing all the food in the stadium--from concessions to suites means that for a sell out game? He feeds over 45,000 people. It's a physical job, that requires a ton of walking. On average, he wears through a pair of shoes every four months.  

As luck would have it, the team was in town and Dave offered a behind the scenes look.

Score! Suite seats off 3rd base.

                                                 An excellent vantage point near the press.
Family fun for these Mariner's fans...taking in a game for dad's birthday.
Homemade cupcakes caught my eye....

Look at this garnish! Cupcakes flagged in a series of "This is your life" photos.

They're double sided! This side includes wedding and primary school photos.

Safeco Field is situated near the water. Thanks to the retractable roof, our sunny evening game was accompanied by salt air and seagulls screeching overhead.

My friend, Ed Sargent, and I met up with chef at Hit it Here Cafe. Off right field, there's a full service restaurant and bar, offering pork belly BLTs, pulled pork sandwiches (smoked in-house), and one of the best burgers in the city. During a 3 hour game? They prepare over 800 burgers. Premium local ingredients include beef from Painted Hills raised on a "never ever" program--no steroids or hormones. Chef is quick to point with pride, "Every burger in this building is made with grass-fed beef!"

Grab a seat along the bar at Hit it Here Cafe, and never miss a minute of the game.

Chef Dave Dekker and Hit it Here culinary supervisor, Yuvonka Wilkins

Mike Medrano; Safeco Executive Chef Dave Dekker; and Roots Sports announcer and 13-year Major League Baseball catcher, Dave Valle. During a break from the booth, I got a chance to catch up with Dave Valle and learn about his non-profit, Esperanza International. Giving back is the goal. Operating in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, they provide microfinance, healthcare and education.  

As we walked and talked, I learned about Chef's mission to drive the stadium's food program, using local ingredients wherever possible. Relatively new in town, he credits chef Ethan Stowell for helping build relationships with vendors. Throughout the stadium, you'll find Shepherd's Grain flour, Carlton Farms pork, Draper Valley chicken, and Painted Hills beef. Still, I was surprised to see several vegetarian options at the stadium, including this one, specializing in smoothies, veggie hot dogs and burgers. 

Stadium food and vegan options? You bet! Vegan dining at Safeco Field includes steamed buns stuffed with either black vinegar-glazed portobello mushrooms or gochujang (Korean chili paste) glazed eggplant.

Steamed buns ready for stuffing.

The golden ticket? Close. Tickets in the Diamond Club run around $450/seat. What's that buy you? Seats so close to the mound, players could sweat on you! And steps away...a series of decadent buffets exclusively for Diamond Club ticket holders including carving stations, live action stations, and the occasional celebrity chef. And did I hear that right? Unlimited alcohol. I visited during the tail end of the game and found at least three dessert stations. 

Diamond Club seats. Notice the hitter on the left? That's the pitcher in the middle. 
Welcome to the good life!

Birds-eye view into bullpen. 

Chef Dave has his fans too!

Coming up the stairs, I catch a whiff of smoked meat. Two giant smokers top the landing. On average they smoke 1,400 pounds of brisket per game.

Fresh off the smoker

Llarell Ezell, Diamond Club lead cook, working on prep. Suckling pigs are salted and chilled overnight. The following day, they'll be roasted and featured on the Diamond Club's carving station.

"Chef, what do you serve for those 1,200 person private events?" He whips out his phone, showing me a number of dishes from salmon to rack of lamb (pictured here).

In the belly of the beast. Chef's wraps up his evening, preparing spreadsheets and dealing with paperwork. Above his computer? His version of a story board. 

A closer look at Chef's story board--plating ideas, recipes, and several thank you cards.

Every day is not a home run....

On our way out, I spot this sign. "Can we take a look?"

How many times have a I seen the evening news feature this room? Half an hour after we left, this room was filled with journalists and camera crews. 

        Baseball, and a slice of Americana. Perhaps one day, these guys will take the field. Or rarer yet, maybe one day, they'll be a stadium chef. 

At the Water's Edge

Seattle's stunning natural backdrop makes it a lure for locals and tourists alike. If you fancy a jaw-dropping view with a roaring fire, and hand-crafted cocktails, look no further than the Edgewater Hotel. Perched over the water with a steady stream of ships and sailboats gliding by, it's easy to loose yourself here.

There are 12,000 guest rooms in Seattle. Only 120 have a view like this. 

While the Edgewater Hotel had been on my radar for weddings (they host over 120/year) and that famed image of the Beatles fishing out of their hotel window, it's recently become my spot for lingering over cocktails and business meetings. The hotel is located in Seattle, a heartbeat from all the downtown action, but enough outside of the fray to provide ample parking, and unobstructed views. (If you're staying here, take advantage of the courtesy shuttle service. They'll drop you anywhere within a 2 mile radius.)

Curl up in a cozy chair...and watch the world go by. 

Recently the hotel hired San Francisco-based cocktail guru, David Nepove to revamp their entire bar. David tore apart the bar, added house made mixers ("everything is made from scratch") and an entirely new cocktail menu. A year ago, I had a lackluster experience here and hesitated going back. A blogger dinner invite provided a welcome look at their new and improved cocktail program. 

Talking with the restaurant manager, Michele Gardner, I wanted to know, "What did you learn?"

The new bar menu embraces craft cocktails. "It took a lot of effort to get the staff on board. We had to assure them...people will wait for a well made cocktail." Aiming for unique and refreshing cocktails, the service experience is different too. "When guests sit at the bar, it's an event." In the end, they landed on twelve new cocktails. I had three, and begged shamelessly recipes. The recipe for my favorite cocktail, the Broken Branch, is at the bottom.

The hotel's 6/7 Restaurant is a mix of rustic and modern finishes, featuring a stone fireplace, wrap around waterfront windows, and Murano glass chandeliers. 

Not to be outdone by the cocktails, chef John Roberts commanded the evening. Elegant dishes and surprising presentations proved hotel dining can be a noteworthy experience. While mainstream media focus their attention on chef-driven restaurants, chef Roberts is equally worthy of the limelight.

Tiger prawn corn dogs

Arriving on carved wood planks, tender prawns sported a crispy exterior, served alongside a sweet chili dipping sauce. "Chef, tell me about these prawns. What's in the batter?" At first blush, the large pieces adhering to the prawns looked like corn. No. He uses a puffed rice from the Asian market (instead of panko or breadcrumbs). Not only is it visually appealing, the puffed rice provides texture and a shattering bite. And here's the chef tip, "It stays crunchier, longer." For a guy who does a significant number of catered events, that's key.

Curried fritter pops

As the menu progressed, subtle nuances continued to push the flavor. It's all about the details. My camera proved useless once the sun set, so I'll recap:

Salmon Crudo
sweet chili pepper puree, washington apple salsa, avocado and yellow curry oil

Sweet Potato and Leek Soup
topped with sauteed kale, proscuitto, pine nuts, chanterelles, and charred onion creme fraiche

Golden Beet Salad
belgium endive, candied pecans,craisins, oranges, blue cheese, fuji apples, and sherry reduction

Apple Granita and Basil Hayden

Pan Roasted Halibut
saffron risotto, grilled green onion, cherry tomatoes, arugula, musseles, and saffron broth

Roasted Rack of Lamb
rosemary roasted vegetables, gnocchi, carrot crisps, and stone ground mustard lamb reduction

Pear and Frangipane Tart
with vanilla sour cream and brandy caramel

And finally, that amazing cocktail....

Kissed with a touch of sweetness, the flavor profile on this cocktail is like a Manhattan...with a touch of cherry liqueur. Perfect for the holidays, or post-skiing libations.

Broken Branch Cocktail

From Six/Seven at the Edgewater Hotel, Seattle 

2 oz Knob Creek Bourbon
½ oz Sweet Vermouth
½ oz Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
½ oz Benedictine
Dash of Angostura Bitters
Method: Stir Garnish: Orange Peel

On the Road with Rick Bayless and Negra Modelo

The past couple years, I've been obsessed with Mexican food. Chef Rick Bayless provided the essential foundation for my education--thanks to his PBS television series, Mexico--One Plate at a Time, now in it's ninth year. His show reflects a life long love of learning...and teaching, unveiling the mysteries of Mexican cuisine, while providing essential on the road cultural context.

Rick's list of accomplishments is staggering (two full pages in my press packet!) In Chicago, he's got a got a stable full restaurants (Frontera Grill, Toplobampo, Xoco, Tortas Frontera, and Frontera Fresco). Frontera, his first, was launched in 1987. Between restaurant launches, he penned eight cookbooks, developed a line of Frontera salsas, sauces, and chips sold throughout the United States, and won awards and accolades too numerous to count.

When the invite arrived for a V.I.P. event with Negra Modelo beer and Rick Bayless, of course I went!

Both Rick and Seattle chef Tom Douglas are on the Macy's Culinary Council. (Remember this event with Tom?) It was a natural fit teaming up with Tom at his event space, the Palace Ballroom.

Check in: Check!

10:30 arrival time. Beer in hand minutes later, and perusing a copy of Rick's latest book, Frontera: Margaritas, Guacamoles, and Snacks. I was immediately struck by the format of this book. Nearly every cocktail includes a single drink recipe, and a with fiestas in mind, a large scale version. Snacks include DYI corn nuts. (First, soak the dried corn for three days...)

Beautiful, no? Those footed Negra Modelo glasses are designed to optimize the flavor of the beer. Just like variations to red and white wine glasses, this particular glass showcases Negra Modelo's signature characteristics, caramel sweetness, hints of dark chocolate and a smooth, medium body. For the beer geeks, "This Munich Dunkel (dark) style is characterized by its liberal use of roasted or toasted malts. The slow roasting of the malts alone makes the brewing process last twice as long as other beers, producing its signature reddish color and hint of sweetness."

Kicking off with a passed nosh: whole wheat gougers, eggplant tapenade and roasted tomatoes.

The roasted eggplant collapsed into a delectable spread, topped with a slow-roasted tomato half.

Chefs in the house: (L-R) Evan Desberg, sous chef at the Burgundian, and Matt Bonney, Director of Operations for Bottleworks, Brouwer's, and the Burgundian.

This dish, a staple on The Palace Kitchen's menu, was hauntingly delicious. Fortunately, I was also given the recipe. (See notes at the bottom.) Entertaining tip: I like the use of a beer bottle to give height and double as a name card holder.

A build-your-own taco bar included succulent Pacific Northwest salmon, baked with Tom's signature Rub with Love line.

"Hey, can I take a picture of your plate?" Starting at noon:
- Black Bean and Ham Hock Soup with Tomatillo-Avocado Salsa and Dungeness Crab
- Fresh Corn and Anaheim Chili Pancakes with Cojita Cheese
- Watermelon with Lime and Salt
- Salmon Tacos with Warm Corn Tortillas

Group shot with man of the hour, Chef Rick Bayless, in the middle. "Chef in the Hat" Theirry Rautureau on the floor cracking jokes and wrangling the group together.

At any event, I love watching the pro photographers in action. Out of camera range, there's another photographer on a ladder taking the official shot. This guy, was flown in from Chicago to capture the Rick Bayless/Negra Modelo tour. Nice gig, eh?

Poquito's restaurant operating owners, Matt Fundingsland and Dustin Watson. See Matt in the wheel chair and double leg braces? Yeah. He was at the beach, jumped off a log 4' high, landed on sand and broke both his heels.  Their restaurant, Poquitos hosted the Twitter #FoodieChats with Rick Bayless later that night. Check out the Twitter archives. Good stuff there.

Tom Douglas (Left) and Rick Bayless (Right) demo dishes. Tom covered the black bean soup and Rick presented pulled pork tacos. (Recipes below.)

On my way out, I spotted these guys. What caught my eye? The Mariner's baseball team logo on their chef jackets. Meet Safeco Field Executive Chef; David Dekker, C.C.C. (Left) and his Executive Sous Chef, Ryan Evans (Right). After this season wraps up ("Only 28 games left!"), Ryan is off to California. He'll be moving to the 49ers new stadium. Same title, bigger crowds--the Mariner's stadium hosts 45,000, the 49ers: 70,000. 

Hat tip to Negra Modelo, Rick Bayless, Tom Douglas, and their amazing PR teams. Good times, people. Good times!

Now, on with the recipes:

Tom Douglas' Black Bean and Ham Hock Soup with Avocado-Tomatillo Salsa

2 cups dried black beans, picked over and rinsed
12 cups (3 quarts) chicken stock| or more if needed
1 smoked ham hock
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 ½ cups coarsely chopped onions
½ cups coarsely chopped carrots
½ cup coarsely chopped celery
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
2 cups drained canned chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons coriander seeds| toasted and ground
2 tablespoons cumin seed| toasted and ground
2 tablespoons paprika
¾ tablespoons cayenne| or to taste
3 to 4 tablespoons fresh lime juice| or to taste
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Place the beans in a large pot with the chicken stock and ham hock. Bring
to a simmer and cook until the beans are soft, about 2 hours (1 hour is the
beans have been pre-soaked).
2. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a sauce pan over medium-low heat and
slowly cook the onions, carrots, and celery, stirring occasionally, until the
onions are golden and caramelized, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the garlic for
the last few minutes of cooking. Add the onion mixture, tomatoes, tomato
paste, and ground spices to the simmering beans. Continue to simmer
until everything is very soft, about another hour. Pull out the ham hock and
remove the fat and skin. Pull all the lean meat off the bone, finely chop the
mean, and set aside. In a food processor or blender, coarsely puree the
beans in batches just enough to leave a little texture. Return the soup to
the pot and add the chopped meat. Season with the paprika, cayenne, lime
juice, salt, and black pepper. Just before serving, stir in the chopped
On the plate: Ladle the soup into the bowls and serve with dollops of the
salsa, sour cream and a few cilantro leaves. We also serve warm
cornbread with this soup.
A step ahead: You can make this soup a few days ahead and store it in
the refrigerator. To serve, reheat and stir in the cilantro.

Avocado-Tomatillo Salsa 
½ pound tomatillos (about 8)| husked and cut into quarters
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh cilantro
2 ripe medium avocado| peeled, pitted, and cut into ¼ inch dice
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

A step ahead: You can make this an hour or two ahead and store it, covered, in the refrigerator. Or you can make the salsa without the avocado up to a day ahead, refrigerate it, and stir in the diced avocado shortly before you are ready to serve.

Put the tomatillos in the bowl of a food processor and process until coarsely pureed. Pour the puree into a strainer set over a bowl and drain briefly, discarding the liquid. (The puree doesn't need to be completely dry.) Put the drained puree into a bowl and stir in the lime juice, cilantro, garlic, and avocado. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Rick Bayless' Smoky Pulled Pork Tacos with Roasted Tomatoes and Dark Beer 

2 cups Essential Quick-Cooked Tomato-Chipotle Sauce:
2 stemmed dried chipotle chiles| (or canned chipotle chiles en adobo)
4 garlic cloves| unpeeled
1 ½ pounds ripe tomatoes| (3 medium-large round or 8 to 12 plum)
3 tablespoons olive oil| or vegetable oil or rich-tasting pork lard
1 medium white onion| thinly sliced
½ cup chicken broth
½ cup dark beer| such as Negra Modelo
½ teaspoon black pepper| preferably freshly ground
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon| preferably freshly ground Mexican canela
1/8 teaspoon cloves| preferably freshly ground
½ teaspoon Salt| plus some for sprinkling on the pork
12 ounces pulled pork
Sprigs of cilantro or flat-leaf parsley| for garnish
12 warm corn tortillas| store-bought or homemade
½ cup grated Mexican queso anejo| or Romano or Parmesan

1. Tomato-Chipotle Sauce. Toast dried chiles on an ungreased griddle or heavy skillet over medium heat, turning regularly and pressing flat with a spatula, until very aromatic, 30 seconds. In a small bowl, cover the chiles with hot water and let rehydrate 30 minutes, stirring frequently to ensure even soaking. Drain and discard the water. (Canned chiles need only be removed from their canning sauce.) While the chiles are soaking, roast the unpeeled garlic on the griddle or skillet over medium heat, turning occasionally, until soft (they will blacken in spots), about 15 minutes; cool and peel. Roast the tomatoes on a baking sheet 4 inches below a very hot broiler until blackened on one side, about 6 minutes, then flip and roast the
other side. Cool, then peel, collecting all the juices with the tomatoes. In a food processor or blender, puree the tomatoes, rehydrated or canned chiles and garlic. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a heavy, medium-size (2-to 3-quart) saucepan over medium-high. Add the puree and stir for about 5 minutes as it sears and thickens. Remove from the heat.
2. Simmer the sauce in a heavy, large (10- to 12-inch) skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and fry until nicely golden, about 10 minutes. Scrape in the tomato-chipotle sauce, stir in the broth, beer, black pepper, cinnamon and cloves, and simmer, uncovered, over medium-low for half an hour. Taste and season with salt.
3. Add the pork to the sauce and simmer, stirring to incorporate the sauce and meat together, for about 3 minutes, or until the meat is warmed through.Scoop into a serving bowl and sprinkle with the cilantro and cheese. Serve with the warm tortillas for making soft tacos.
Serves 4