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Tampa Bay chefs get fresh platform at Bucs home games

TAILYR IRVINE   |   Times  Chef John Rivers, who has 14 barbecue locations in Florida, prepares a plate of Cantina Tacos on Sunday as part of the Bucs\u2019 new Celebrity Chef Showcase at Raymond James Stadium.
TAILYR IRVINE | Times Chef John Rivers, who has 14 barbecue locations in Florida, prepares a plate of Cantina Tacos on Sunday as part of the Bucs\u2019 new Celebrity Chef Showcase at Raymond James Stadium.
Published Sep. 17, 2018

TAMPA — It was almost like a sitcom spit take. People in Buccaneers-red and Eagles-midnight green would walk up to the makeshift kitchen in the West Stadium Club, look at the huge poster of chef/restaurateur John Rivers, then glance at the guy in the 4 Rivers Smokehouse shirt assembling the Messy Pig sandwiches and Cantina Tacos.

"Hey, it's you. You're the guy."

It was John Rivers.

At Sunday's triumphant home opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Buccaneers launched their first Celebrity Chef Showcase, an initiative that brings together foodies and regional culinary stars with onsite appearances and a short lineup of signature dishes crafted especially for home games.

It is no accident that Rivers was the inaugural chef — his barbecue is the first branded food in Raymond James Stadium, a facility that has been overseen by food service giant Aramark for the past five seasons. At eight locations around the stadium, guests can purchase a range of 4 Rivers barbecue options, part of a shift that has been mirrored at sports facilities, airports and event arenas around the country: Give guests the chance to sample regional dishes from celebrated local chefs and restaurateurs.

"The days of just stadium food are over," said Brian Ford, the Buccaneers' chief operating officer, as fans began lining up for 4 Rivers barbecue Sunday. "We're trying to offer choice and bring exposure to local fare. Diners, including millennials, want variety, choice and value. This is an opportunity to improve upon the game-day experience."

Rivers, who has 14 barbecue locations in Florida and opened one in Disney Springs just three weeks ago, is known for food that is football-appropriate: Pulled pork sandwiches, brisket and other handhelds.

For the rest of the chefs in the series lineup, stadium food may be a bit of a leap. The featured chef for Monday night's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers is Greg Baker, James Beard semifinalist and co-owner of the Refinery in Seminole Heights. Known for his cerebral farm-to-fork fare, Bucs food may not be a natural fit. Why do it?

"There are things I can't do at the Refinery. I can't just make a really good bowl of chili — there are things that I like to cook and like to eat but can't represent at the restaurant. (For the Celebrity Chef Showcase), I'm making Frito pie al pastor and potato skins with brisket, kimchi and cheddar. Tailgate food, but elevated."

Participating represents an opportunity for a more casual creative outlet, but also a marketing opportunity.

"(Football fans) is a market that we haven't actively pursued," Baker said. When asked if the Bucs might be auditioning chefs for permanent restaurant kiosks at the stadium, Baker sounded skeptical.

"I wouldn't say it's off the table," he said. "But right now I'm really enjoying having just one restaurant."

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For the home game against Cleveland on Oct. 21, David Benstock of Il Ritorno in St. Petersburg will be on hand with his contemporary Italian fare. For the Nov. 11 game vs. the Washington Redskins, chef Jason Ruhe will showcase special dishes from Brick & Mortar in St. Petersburg, followed by Marty Blitz of Mise en Place (Nov. 25 against San Francisco) and Marlin Kaplan of Grace Restaurant in Pass-a-Grille (Dec. 2 against the Carolina Panthers) and then two yet unnamed chefs.

Signature dishes will be available for purchase at four locations inside Raymond James Stadium: at the Taste of Tampa booths at the east and west side of the 100-level as well as outside section 232 in the East Stadium Club and by the West Stadium Club center bar (where the celebrity chefs will be stationed).

"We have a presence at University of Florida, Florida State and University of Central Florida," said Rivers, "but this is the first time we've been involved with the NFL. I had to think about what NFL fans would want: It's concession food but a little more upgraded and with a little girth to it."

As a man of faith, Rivers grappled with running concessions on Sundays, deciding to funnel 100 percent of proceeds to his 4R Foundation, which last year donated to 970 family organizations in Florida.

"The restaurants have always been a platform to getting my message across," Rivers said as Bucs fans clapped him on the back and tucked into pulled pork sandwiches with two layers of cole slaw and a scattering of pickles and jalapenos ($13).

For Aramark district manager Nicholas Vande Velde, the Celebrity Chef Showcase may be a first step toward making stadium food a little more dynamic.

"This brings awareness to the chefs' brands and they don't have to put up a lot of working capital. This is a good first step for us — we'll have to see how the fans respond."

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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