The next time someone takes me out to the ball game, they can buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack. But if we go to B.C. Place Stadium, I'd rather eat ling cod battered with rice pearls and baby radish crudités from the urban farm across the street.
A food revolution is heating up the kitchens under that glowing retractable roof. When the refurbished stadium reopened in 2011, executive chef Ryan Stone had already pulled out five deep fryers to make room for a wood smoker, a brick pizza oven, a steamer and a tilting pan in which his staff were making their own braises, sauces and stews. Since then, he has launched several innovative concession stands and deepened his commitment to offering the masses local, sustainable foods made from scratch.
"There were people who had worked here for 25 years and had never used a charbroiler," Mr. Stone says as we tour the new stalls during a recent B.C. Lions game. "Instead of buying chicken with painted-on grill lines, we now buy free-range chicken breasts and grill them ourselves. What a novel concept," he quips.
Freshly grilled chicken might seem basic to a French-trained chef. But it's a radical change for football, soccer and baseball fans accustomed to dining on rubbery hot dogs and nasty nachos while rooting for the home team.
Although B.C. Place is way ahead of the curve in Canada, elevated stadium fare is a growing trend in the United States. Time and Forbes magazines noted a new focus on local foods at stadiums (and airports) as one of the Top 10 food trends last year. Both articles gave high props to the Latin-inspired favourites and local specialties at Miami's new Marlin Park. Brooklyn's Barclays Center (pastries from Baked in the Red Hook neighbourhood, and pizza from L&B Spumoni Gardens), San Francisco's AT&T Park (Dungeness crab), Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park (Italian pork sandwiches from Tony Luke's) were also on the list of home-cooked hits.
Here at B.C. Place, Vikram Vij was the first local celebrity chef to get on board. At his Vij's Indian Restaurant stall on the 200 Level, you will find two curries, kanjoli chicken and navy bean and kale, from his packaged meal line. Lamb curry is made in-house because it is not commercially available and Mr. Stone wanted to offer something different. He spent three days with the cooks at Vij's to perfect the recipe. The dishes ($9.25 to $10.25) come with rice (made on site) and warm naan from a local Vij-approved bakery.
The lamb – fork-tender shoulders and legs deeply braised with cardamom, clove and black pepper – is very, very good.
The general concessions feature house-made chili, poutine gravy and pulled-pork sliders. "The Lions keep trying to get me to use their barbecue sauce," Mr. Stone says. (Yes, the team has its own brand of tequila-citrus sauce, sold at grocery stores across Mainland Vancouver). "I prefer mine," he adds diplomatically.
Mr. Stone has also introduced his take on garlic fries, a casual finger-food sensation that rolled out from the San Francisco Giants' AT&T Park. Here they are sprinkled with fresh and roasted garlic and toasted red peppercorns. I don't taste them. But, boy, I sure can smell them.
Another standout stall is Steveston's Fish & Chips. Developed in partnership with Richmond's Frobisher International Enterprise (the maker of Ocean Mama Seafood products), the ling cod tails are battered in a light tempura mixed with puffed rice "pearls" and freeze-dried malt-vinegar powder. The rice gives the fish a crisp coating that stays crunchy because it does not have the usual gummy layer underneath. The vinegar powder offers a subtle built-in tanginess so diners do not have to fuss with plastic packages.
The fish ($8.50 for one piece, $11.50 for two) comes with all-natural kettle-cooked chips from a local company, Hardbite. They're thicker than most brands and taste like real potatoes. Mr. Stone proudly notes that a few stadiums in the United States have already picked up the product.
It's interesting to observe that Hardbite does not appear on any signs in the stadium, although the chips are used all over. B.C. Place's sponsorship rules prevent any vendors who are not advertisers from touting their name. Vij's is an advertiser. But that does explain why the local food suppliers are not all obvious at first sight.
Montreal smoked meat ($9.75, with Hardbite chips) is another must-try. Mr. Stone sources pickled briskets from Herpak Inc. in Montreal, does his own secondary brine and smokes them over mesquite charcoal for 14 hours. The thinly sliced beef, reheated in steamers, is served with house-made beer mustard on custom marble-rye kaiser buns from Stuyver's Bakestudio.
Bread is one of Mr. Stone's big passions. In the suites and club lounges, he offers an upscale hot dog (bratwurst from D-Original, a local charcuterie company) in a natural casing with no preservatives, binders or fillers. Because the wiener is skinnier than the Harvest all-beef hot dogs served downstairs, he asked Stuyver's to make him a thinner sesame bun. "You have to match the bread to the sandwich," the perfectionist says.
I agree. But I am not convinced he has found the best match for the Gastown Grill steak sandwich ($12). The four-ounce Angus strip loin is dry-aged for 40 to 50 days by Cioffi's, a superb Italian butcher shop in Burnaby. The flat bun could use a bit more chew. And the steaks, which are cooked sous-vide before service then grilled to order, need a darker char. As it is served now, the steak is too soft and pink. But I do quite like the sweet tomato jam, pesto, arugula and caramelized onion fillers.
A 50,000-plus-seat stadium does not seem the most obvious fit for a fine-dining chef who apprenticed at the Pear Tree in Burnaby, helmed the kitchen at the luxury West Coast Fishing Club Lodge on Langara Island, and has competed internationally (most notably as the Canadian contender for the 2011 Bocuse d'Or World Cuisine contest).
Mr. Stone admits he is not even a sports fan. "I'm indifferent," he says, shrugging in the direction of the playing field.
Truth be told, he was reluctant to take the job. He first worked for Centerplate, the giant hospitality group that serves B.C. Place along with some 260-odd other sports venues in North America on a three-month contract during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
When the company tried to recruit him as its full-time executive chef, he turned it down – twice. After talking it through with his mentors, he changed his mind.
"This is definitely the most interesting chef's job I've ever had. I'm always thinking, 'What's the most interesting thing I can do to bring this to the next level?'"
I have a suggestion. Sponsorships be damned – start paying attention to the beer and wine lists.