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  1. Arts & Entertainment

Cooking competition at Tropicana Field leads to special chili chicken and fried rice dish

ST. PETERSBURG — The competitive spirit at Tropicana Field is hardly limited to the AstroTurf. The will to win is strong in other parts of the stadium, too. Take, for instance, the kitchen.

On Wednesday, the stadium's main kitchen was a hotbed of culinary testosterone as five Tampa Bay Rays employees — all men — went spatula to spatula in a good-natured reality-show style cooking competition. The first obstacle was impressing the Rays' new executive chef Marc Spooner, a 2009 winner of Food Network's Chopped and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.

Call it Tropped or maybe Trop Chef, and file it under clever team-building exercise, with a side of Tom Colicchio criticism, no secret ingredients and a morning spent among more pots and pans than any of the competitors had ever seen.

The winner, Matthew Hahn, an assistant in baseball operations, wowed judges — Spooner, senior adviser Dick Crippen and Darcy Raymond, vice president of fan experience — with his Thai-inspired chicken dish. Hahn, 29, barely bested the eggplant Parmesan of Nick D'Amico from the IT help desk, and he also barely beat the clock.

With just seconds to go in the two-hour competition, he methodically plated his Sweet Chili Chicken with Pineapple Fried Rice. Hahn spent the first 80 minutes of the competition chopping neat piles of red pepper, ginger and carrots, among other ingredients. Oh, and there was nibbling, too.

The winning dish will be served today for a season kick-off luncheon for more than 200 Rays employees. Luckily for Hahn, the Trop's troop of able chefs will step in to make mass quantities of his original recipe.

For fans interested in tasting the spicy fried chicken nuggets nestled with crunchy-sweet fried rice, the dish will be featured several times this season as a special in one of the Trop's restaurants. When and where has yet to be announced. Spooner and the others loved the dish for its balance of flavors and texture, and welcomed an Asian offering to the Trop's lineup of food, even for a limited time.

Centerplate, the Rays' hospitality partner, hired Spooner, 38, as executive chef in September, bringing him back to Florida after many years in New York. His most recent culinary posting was with Great Performances, a large-scale New York catering outfit. It was there, he said, that he learned how to provide a wide variety of food to a diverse audience.

Spooner, who grew up in Lakeland, said he expects the Trop's basic offerings to stay the same: "You're at a baseball stadium, you want baseball food." He plans to focus his early efforts in the suites and restaurants —— Everglades BBQ Smokehouse, the Brewhouse and the Whitney Bank Club.

"I want to serve quality food that you could get at any quality restaurant," he said. To that end, diners may see some tweaks to presentations, too, like serving buffet food in cast-iron skillets rather than chafing dishes.

Wednesday's internal event was conceived by the Rays to build employee relationships and also to capitalize on Spooner's experience on the Food Network. All employees were invited to submit recipes, and the five who did were invited to participate in the competition. Other contestants were Tim Burke, box office/call center manager; Brian Plexico, software architect in baseball operations; and intern Pete Sweeney, also in baseball operations. That there were no women was a surprise to organizers.

"Especially since we have a lot of good cooks here," said Melanie Lenz, vice president of development.

Because Spooner was judging, he stayed out of the kitchen, so his expertise as a winning cooking show contestant didn't much come into play. Out of earshot of the contestants, he said that the key to winning had much to do with managing time and keeping stations organized.

Going by that, it seemed that Hahn might have had strikes against him. But in the end he said he knew that his entry needed way more prep work than cook time. He wanted the chicken to arrive to the judges' table hot and still crispy.

While the kitchen full of people counted down the seconds, the other four competitors long finished, Hahn popped hot chicken in his mouth and slid plates alongside the others with the cool of a major league closer.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at or (727) 893-8586.