CHAPEL HILL — The UNC-Virginia Tech game is just about to start. As 54,000 fans take their seats at Kenan Stadium and turn their attention to the field, crisis strikes the kitchen of the stadiums exclusive Blue Zone.
Were going to have a hot dog issue, head chef Mike Bickel tells his boss, Dean Ogan.
Ogan, 44, owns Rocky Top Hospitality, which caters for UNCs Blue Zone, premium seating for about 4,100 Rams Club members, as well as another 500 in private boxes scattered around the stadium. (Another company, Aramark, caters the concession stands where most fans eat.) In the Blue Zone, where fans pay $750 or more per seat on top of the season ticket cost and Rams Club donation for amenities including food, cash bar and closer bathrooms, Ogans marching orders are to never to run out of anything.
And here they are before kickoff and theyve already gone through 3,200 hot dogs.
Ogan asks his chef what else they might serve. Sausages? No. Those were sent back to the companys catering kitchen in Raleigh. Hamburgers? Bickel says there are none. Wings? They have eight cases.
Time to get creative, Ogan says as he heads into the freezer.
Ogan finds some things Bickel overlooked: 300 hot dogs and 150 burgers. Thats good but not enough to get them through the game.
Bickel could be forgiven for missing those items in the freezer. Its now 12:30 p.m. kickoff time and Bickel has been on the job since 2 a.m. This is also the third home game in a row, and feeding 5,000 fans at Kenan is more challenging than any other catering gig.
A chef knows how much food to prepare for, say, 300 wedding guests or 50 people at a birthday party. With a game, how much food will be needed hinges on several factors, some of which the chef knows ahead of time, like opponent and game time, and some the chef wont know until game day, like the weather.
This days ACC Coastal Division matchup has all the factors that equate to fans eating a lot of food: high attendance, lunchtime kickoff and 76-degree weather.
Another challenge: The food varies throughout the Blue Zone. On the Concourse level, fans get typical gameday fare: hot dogs, barbecue sandwiches, nachos and the like. In the swankier Upper Club, they have a buffet of hot dogs and such, plus a special menu including glazed carrots, roasted potatoes and carving stations of roast turkey and ham.
These games are so different from anything else our company does, says Alison Purdee, Rocky Tops catering sales manager.
Rocky Top Hospitality built its reputation on the much loved and now closed Michael Deans restaurant in North Raleigh. Ogans company operates seven restaurants, including Tribeca Taverns in Cary and Raleigh and the Arco Cafe at the states expanded science museum, as well a catering kitchen and event space in North Raleigh called 1705 Prime.
Before Ogan got the contract to cater at Kenan three years ago, the largest event his staff had ever done was for 850 people. This season, they will cook for thousands at each of Carolinas seven home games.
Avoiding green hot dogs
The experience has taught them some valuable lessons. Hot dogs cooked too far ahead split and turn green. Beef Wellington, an appetizer in the suites this season, has been a struggle since puff pastry doesnt hold up well for long hours. Chicken can dry out on a buffet.
Slow-roasted and braised meats are best, Ogan says. ...The food has to hold and look good for hours.
The preparation for game day starts on Monday when workers bake 6,300 cookies. Bickel and fellow chef Marc Vanscoy oversee a dozen kitchen workers who tackle any number of tasks in this assembly-line operation. For this Saturday, they will cut up 350 quarts of fresh fruit, make 146 quarts of coleslaw and roll 10,500 meatballs.
The goal is to have as little leftover food as possible. Ogan abhors waste, not just because it loses money but because it strikes him as morally wrong. He wants his chefs to prepare as much food as they think they will need but also to have ingredients on hand to make more nacho cheese, roast beef sandwiches or spinach salad if needed.
Without enough hot dogs to last the game, Ogan and Bickel decide to make hamburgers and wings, if necessary, for the 1,800 people and three buffets on the Concourse. The 300 hot dogs found in the freezer will go to the other areas.
Bickel starts defrosting wings and directs his staff to grill 150 hamburgers. Chef Vanscoy starts heating up the last of the hot dogs.
They have eaten more hot dogs than we have ever served them before halftime, Purdee says.
If the burgers and wings run out, Ogan tells his staff, make turkey and ham sandwiches.
The kitchen is buzzing. The workers are chopping cabbage for more coleslaw, heating up nacho cheese, frying potatoes, grilling onions for the salads. Vanscoy uses a 3-foot industrial hand-held mixer to churn up gallons of salad dressing.
Ogan has a brainstorm: He can buy more hot dogs from Aramark. A short time later, 600 more hot dogs arrive in the kitchen.
Crisis averted just in time for halftime, when another wave of fans will queue up at the buffets.
Im still shocked by how much people are eating, Ogan marvels.
Time for a special dessert
At the start of the fourth quarter, Ogans team always brings out a special dessert for the Blue Zones more exclusive areas: the Upper Club, the suites and other premium seating areas. The dessert changes each game: chocolate-dipped marshmallows, caramel apples, bread pudding. On this Saturday, its a mixed berry cobbler. After the staff sets out the cobbler along with a new tray of cookies, the fans in the Upper Club make a beeline for the buffet.
Among them is Rick Nash of Greenville, S.C., who starts for the cookies until he sees the special dessert. Oh, cobbler! he says and fills a plate.
Wendy Ruffin-Barnes of Ahoskie, an Upper Club regular, opted for an ice cream sandwich. But she says she looks forward to the special fourth-quarter dessert at each game. I think its great, she says. Last week, they had banana pudding. It was good.
On the Monday after the game, Ogan meets with his staff to discuss how Saturday went. Ogan praises them for minimizing waste. Their predictions were off only by a bit: nine leftover hams, 14 leftover bags of spinach, 600 cookies. Some items can be frozen for future games. Others go to the companys restaurants. Some goes home with staff.
I thought we reacted really well, Ogan says of the crisis in the kitchen. We only had a short period of time on the Concourse level when we had burgers instead of hot dogs.
The weary group of managers and chefs smile. The meeting ends on this note from Purdee: Two Saturdays off until N.C. State the biggest game of the year, at least in the Blue Zones kitchen.
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