Chef concocts crackerjack ballpark fare

April 08, 2009|By ROB KASPER

When Chad Vandegrift was a teenager living in Anne Arundel County, he used to make hurried trips to Orioles games. He would show up minutes before game time, buy bleacher seats at Memorial Stadium and eat hot dogs.

Now some two decades later, he routinely goes to Camden Yards. He arrives early in the morning, sometimes before dawn. He doesn't see much baseball, but he eats a lot better.

Vandegrift, 36, is the new executive chef of Camden Yards, overseeing a staff of some 40 cooks who prepare ballpark fare: everything from the Guinness-flavored flank steak to the Maryland crab soup.

He also cooks for two sports. In the fall, he parks his Hyundai at M&T Bank Stadium, instead of Camden Yards, and works as executive chef at the Ravens' stadium.

"I am the sports food cook in Baltimore," he said.

Ballpark fare has changed considerably since he was a teenager wolfing down dogs.

In Baltimore and elsewhere, cuisine now occupies spots in stadium lineups, especially in the power slots - the high-priced club levels and suites. At the new Yankee Stadium, for instance, fans in the posh suites will be treated this season to occasional visits by chefs from Le Cirque and other high-end Manhattan restaurants, who will prepare dishes at open-cooking stations (here is betting the Food Network will soon have cameras there). Across town at the new Citi Field, another noted Gotham restaurateur, Danny Meyer, is teaming up with Aramark to bring morsels such as steamed corn on the cob with mayonnaise to comfort long-suffering Mets fans.

"It used to be all hot dogs and hamburgers," said Vandegrift. "But now people come to the ballpark wanting crab cakes and paninis as well. Fans have a more educated palate. They expect more from us."

So it happens every spring that ballpark chefs like Vandegrift come up with new menu items. At a press preview last week at Camden Yards, Vandegrift showed off some of this season's fresh starters: a "blazin" burger made with Angus beef flavored with Cajun mayonnaise and jalapeno peppers, a soft chicken taco dotted with cilantro, and Maryland Market salad plates made with mounds of locally grown vegetables.

Also on display were promising new beverages, such as Squeeze Play, an orange concoction that plays two positions: a nonalcoholic drink when served in stands and a rum-laden cocktail when served in the Camden Club. Another eye-catching cocktail was a bloody mary served in a Mason jar, with its rim dusted with Old Bay and served with a chaser of Yuengling beer. Down one of those, and you could soon forget the score.

Fans expect more than just watching guys battle on the greensward, Vandegrift said. They listen to music on high-quality stadium sound systems. They watch replays on laser-sharp scoreboard screens. During Camden Yards' popular animated race of the condiments between innings, they root for the mustard to beat the ketchup and relish around the bases. "Going to a ballgame now is more of an overall experience," he said.

Yet, Vandegrift said, a ballpark chef can never forget the fundamentals. So like a pitcher who changes speeds, Vandegrift mixes up the ballpark offerings, providing some basics - dogs and burgers, Boog's barbecue - along with a sampling of yogurt parfaits.

Vandegrift, who was named executive chef at Camden Yards in January, replacing Russell Szekely, is a local boy.

While attending Arundel High School, he worked in the kitchen of Crofton Country Club. After a year at Anne Arundel Community College, he enrolled at Baltimore International College.

"I figured if I was going to do this for a living, I might as well learn the fine points," Vandegrift said.

Vandegrift lives in Gambrills with his wife, Mitzi, who, he admits, controls the purse strings. His wife also works for Aramark, as a comptroller. Some chefs might fight with their front offices about how much money they get to spend on ingredients. But at his house and workplace, there are, Vandegrift swears, never any disputes about food costs.

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