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.