Let’s talk about chicken and waffles. It’s a Southern dish that you can eat for any meal. It’s also available in CenturyLink Field for Seattle Sounders and Seattle Seahawks home games, and sometimes during their non-sports events too. Going from top to bottom you start with a bit of powdered sugar, then a chicken tender, then some bourbon reduction maple syrup and finally a waffle. In the CLink that waffle is from Sweet Iron Waffles. The chicken is from Ezell’s Famous Fried Chicken.
Both Executive Chef Michael Johnson and David Young, (this title is something) Seattle Seahawks Vice President of Operations and General Manager of CenturyLink Field through First & Goal Incorporated, General Manager First & Goal Hospitality, mentioned the Ezell’s chicken and waffles on their list of favorites. Why? For Young it was a symbol of being able to connect locally, for Chef Michael it is a fusion of his Southern roots and Seattle.
“The chicken and waffles is something I’ve taken a lot of pride in. I have Southern roots, so I take a lot of pride in it. Hand breading chicken tenders in a stadium this size is not something that comes easily to us,” Chef Michael told Sounder at Heart on media day. “I take a lot of pride in the work that we do with the CID and bringing those products in, making sure that we are developing a cross section of Seattle in our stadium is something that’s extremely important to me.”
Another cross section of Seattle is phở. The traditional Vietnamese dish is incredibly popular here, but it doesn’t make for great stadium food. Enter the phởrito.
“When we partnered up with Phở Cyclo and Taylor Hoang, she immediately started talking to us about the challenges of trying to present phở in the stadium, with having a bowl full of noodles in the stands and what that would mean with how difficult that would be. She brought up the idea of a phởrito, we immediately jumped on it,” Chef Michael beams. “I love fusion. It’s one of my favorite things. I think that idea and the fact that we had already been talking about it and she has been able to execute it here is extraordinary for us. We think it’s going to boom for us.”
During our conversations local keeps coming up. It’s something that Seahawks and Sounders fans agree on - local, quality foods. Where they disagree is on the ratio of craft beers. Sounders fans want more craft than the Seahawks fans.
“Last year that was our focus,” Young said. “Bringing on John Howie at the club level, he’s done some things that you just don’t expect from stadium food. Bringing in Kraken Congee is hyper local right here in Pioneer Square. Those are really our focus. You’ll see that carrying over into this year.”
Local is the foundation of First & Goal Hospitality’s vision. Chef Michael wants local foods, local chefs and local vendors. It’s part of his vision for sustainability. His other pillars for the food are organic, if not organic then grass-fed, if not that then natural, and always sustainable.
For a chef, sustainable isn’t just about food. It’s about acting through local business to help the economy here. It’s about his employees in a highly seasonal business having steady incomes and personal welfare.
“We look at sustainability not only as a food and environment but as a wholesomeness. We look at it through our employees and making sure that they are sustainable and able to live,” Chef Michael says with pride. “This is a building that’s seasonal so in the offseason we try to find them work outside of this business. We do a lot of work with homeless shelters and recovery centers and get people back on their feet. That’s something we take a lot of pride in.”
It’s a very Seattle attitude from this Louisiana raised high school soccer player.
But it’s going to take some time. The food reboot at CenturyLink Field started at the tail end of 2016. Over 2017 more new vendors and items will make their way into the building.
“Starting around April we’re going to start transitioning in some more new options,” Young explained. “Poulet Gallore [from Chef Josh Henderson’s Huxley Wallace Collective] underneath the north area, and over on the main concourse we’re bringing on a vendor booth with six or seven individual booths that can change out. We’ll bring in up-and-coming chefs with different food options. That will be July or mid-Summer.”
There is also the challenge of creating restaurant quality food at the volume a 69,000 seat stadium demands. Not all stands have the same equipment. Not every booth has the same talent. The product may not be available at these quantities. Even with those challenges Chef Michael is proud of each item. “It’s like you said, each one of my babies [he’s talking about the menu items] has a special moment to me. It’s a piece of pride.”
His responsibility is to keep CLink’s food as close to Chef Josh’s vision. Based on tasting the poke, the phởrito, the chicken and waffles and the coconut shrimp during Friday’s media day, the Sounder at Heart staff thinks they did well.
It was some of the best coconut shrimp I’ve had. I nearly licked the sauce off the little serving tray. The poke was fresh, light and delicious. The phởrito took the flavors you enjoy and gave them a neat wrapping. You can skip the broth as sauce though.
The chefs council has no official membership, yet. First & Goal Hospitality is vetting that group, but they already work with Henderson and Johnson, as well as Phở Cyclo, Uli’s, Ezell’s, Kraken Congee, Kid Valley, Ivar’s, John Howie, Ethan Stowell and more.
It’s odd to think of a stadium having premium quality foods. But it’s also very Seattle. The emphasis on locality and sustainability are ideals that pop up throughout our region and lifestyle. The foods - phở, poke, asian-fusion, Mexican, fish - are our foods.
Don’t worry. There’s still going to be typical American stadium food if you just want to watch the game.
Young proclaims, “If people want to come to a sporting event and have a hot dog and beer, we’ll sell you that, but we also felt it could be so much more.”