When Citi Field opens this April, it will host not only the Mets, but four outposts of Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group, one of New York City's best-known and best-regarded restaurant and catering groups. In the stadium's outfield concourse, hungry Mets fans will be able to enjoy food from Gotham favorites Shake Shack and Blue Smoke and two brand-new establishments, Box Frites and El Verano Taqueria.
Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Ron Parker, managing director of Hudson Yards -- Union Square's catering and events arm -- and Floyd Cardoz, executive chef/partner at Tabla restaurant and the consulting chef for El Verano. In the interest of brevity, I've included just highlights of the conversation here, but if you're as intrigued as I am by tacos, baseball and the interaction thereof, check out the full transcript of the Q&A.
Floyd Cardoz: When the restaurant started speaking about doing something with the Mets, obviously my interest piqued because I'm a huge Mets fan. I live and die with the Mets, so when I heard Danny might be doing something with the new Mets stadium I said, "Hey Danny, you know, how about me? I'd like to be involved in some capacity." Then we started talking about all the things that we would do and what really interested me was a taco concept.
Ted Berg: How did you get into the Mets? Was it a lifelong thing or --
FC: No, actually. I grew up in India and when I first came to this country in '88, I lived by Shea Stadium in Queens. I had never seen baseball in my life and someone said, "Hey, would you like to go to a baseball game?" I said, "Sure, why not?" So we went to Shea and we had really good field level seats. So that was pretty entertaining and that's really how I got into the Mets. We had some bad years along the way but, you know, it was already ingrained and I really loved the team and loved to watch baseball, so now it's become part of me.
TB: What's your favorite stadium food?
FC: I was really, really impressed when I went to the Giants Stadium --
TB: So did you do research for this? I mean, did you tour other stadiums for the Citi Field project or was that something you did just as a baseball fan?
FC: I think Ron has done a lot of research with stadiums, but I pretty much love baseball so whenever I'm out of town I try to get to a ballpark, no matter what.
Ron Parker: I also think we should talk about our research developing the taco concepts.
TB: Oh, we'll get to that because taco concepts excite me like nothing else.
RP: I think that when we talk about the framework and what it took to do the research behind the taco concept, it will give you a peek into the soul of our organization and how we approach food and beverage with everything we do, whether it's a baseball stadium or Tabla. It just gives you some insight into how seriously our organization takes it.
FC: When we started doing this research it was Ron, myself and David Swinghammer, and we decided to make a trip to the West Coast to see where we could get the best tacos. We went to San Francisco, we went to Los Angeles, and we ate as many tacos as we possibly could. From good to average to bad.
TB: That sounds glorious.
FC: It was, it was. We ate from taco trucks, we ate at stands and we ate in restaurants. We went into stores wherever they were making tortillas, and rode the trains in San Francisco, where we just ate! We went to Superica [in Santa Barbara, Calif.] and we ordered everything they had. If someone said it was the best we wanted to see why it was the best.
RP: Ted, we ate everything. We ate eyeballs. You know, tongue is common --
TB: Eyeball tacos?
RP: Anything you can imagine in a taco. Every place we stopped. We made sure we ran the gamut, just to make sure we didn't miss something because you never know. We ordered everything because there's something to be learned at every place.
FC: There are a lot of similarities between Mexico and India because you have the Spanish food in Mexico and you have the Portuguese, who came to India -- the part that I came from -- so there were a lot of pork products and beef products and things that I ate growing up, that I see a lot of similarities to in Mexico.
In Mexico and India, you use chilis as flavoring, and that was exciting for me to be able to do that, to get to know this cuisine that I've always loved. When we started developing the menu for Citi Field, we tried 20 salsas, and prepared pork various ways, and chicken various ways, and steak various ways and tried to get the best to stand for what we do.
TB: So that's what we're talking, pork, chicken and steak tacos?
FC: Yes, we're going to start off with three: pork, chicken and steak. And we're going to do a sweet corn with cotija cheese, which is a very typical Mexican street food.
TB: That sounds unbelievable, but I got away from my original point, which was asking you about your favorite stadium food.
FC: The fries that they had at the Giants' stadium.
TB: The garlic fries?
FC: The garlic fries. I loved them. I think that nobody is doing it as well as it can be, and we will be.
TB: With the frites? That makes a nice segue. Tell me about that.
RP: We have assigned one chef for each concept to make sure that everyone can focus directly on their food and make it the best it can possibly be. I know there's a lot of mentality in sports stadiums where it's one executive chef for an entire property, but we felt the best way to get the highest quality would be if we could dedicate our talented chefs to focus on an individual concept.
Robb Garceau, who's been with our company for three-plus years ... did a lot of work looking into traditional Belgian frite shacks and dipping sauces, so the concept there is that you will have what is similar to the size and cut of the Belgian frite, with a little spin of an American French fry style on it because it's not going to be as short and stubby. And then he's going to be producing housemade aiolis and frite sauces that we think will play well at the stadium.
We've put something that we call placeholders on all our menu boards so that we can incorporate seasonal specials and ingredients, which you don't normally find at stadiums as the season moves on. So Floyd will have the ability to do a special taco -- I'm not saying it's going to be eyeball -- or he can do a special dessert.
And we can do the same thing with the frite concept as the season moves on. If basil's really great, we might do a basil aioli. I don't want to make stuff up for the chefs, but the idea is to use locally sourced ingredients, the best ingredients we can get our hands on, and adapt the menu as the season moves on to make sure that we always raise the bar on what people should expect and give them something to look forward to when they come back to the stadium.
TB: When I think about Shake Shack and the line at Shake Shack in Madison Square Park, you couldn't have something like that at a stadium. Are there special challenges to running a business at a ballpark?
FC: I definitely think, on a production standpoint, there are challenges. If I said there weren't, I'd be lying. But I think we're smart enough to know that people are coming to the stadium to watch the game. We want them to also come to the stadium to eat our food, but once they come to the stadium, we don't want them to be waiting too long, and we don't want them to be eating average food. So we want them to take as little time as possible at the stand, that's why we're starting with a limited menu.
Yeah, there are challenges of making hundreds of pounds of whatever, but we have to figure it out before the stadium opens to make sure that they don't wait and that the quality is there. And I'm doing that right now -- I'm cooking hundreds of pounds of carnitas at my restaurant right now to see what's going to happen to it. What's going to happen when I scale it up? Is it going to taste the same? Is it going to taste better? My job is to make sure it tastes better. And we're doing that at Blue Smoke, we're doing that at Shake Shack, and we all want to achieve the same goal: To make sure our food tastes good.
RP: We are fortunate because it's not common that you have the ability to tap someone with Floyd's talent, or Ken Callahan at Blue Smoke or Robb Garceau to just focus on one individual concept at a stadium.
Using Floyd's techniques and the things he can do to bring things together so it's easy for an employee to assemble a product and cook it perfectly is the finesse and the challenge to this thing -- not only doing it on a large scale but being able to teach others to do it consistently. It's something we've put a lot of thought into, and we definitely plan to hit the mark.
TB: I almost forgot to ask about booze.
FC: I've been talking to the Brooklyn Brewery about a specialty beer for the taqueria. I think Garrett Oliver is very talented, at Brooklyn Brewery, and he's already developed two -- for Shake Shack and Blue Smoke. He's working on one that's planned for Citi Field to go with the tacos.
RP: And he's working on one for the frites stand, more of the blanc-style beer, and there'll hopefully be Shackmeister beer and Blue Smoke Ale.
FC: We met last week and tasted a bunch of things. We want it to be something that people want to drink at a ballpark. Garrett has a great philosophy where he says, when someone has a beer, it's not what the first sip does, it's what the last sip does. And his rule is that anybody who has a beer is going to get full, so it's got to be that good, to get you full. We tasted a lot of flavors: chilis, cinnamon. We came up with an orange-ish aroma, not sweet beer, but with a slight orange and a slight cinnamon flavor to it. It'll have a complexity with it that will work with the carnitas that we're doing. We haven't tasted that yet, but it's in the works.
TB: Well, I'm excited. And hungry.
Read the full Q&A with Ron and Floyd here.