Like everything else about Super Bowl XLV, the word most associated with year's Taste of the NFL party is "big." Biggest venue. Biggest turnout. Biggest stack of a thousand-plus champagne classes. Biggest fund-raising goal they've had to date, aiming to raise at least a million dollars for food banks around the Dallas-Ft. Worth area and across the country with this year's event.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary, this year's Taste of the NFL featured 32 chefs and players from around the nation's NFL cities, plus eight additional local chefs from the recent Taste of North Texas event along with nine returning "inaugural chefs and athletes " from the first Taste, including culinary stars Nancy Silverton and Todd English and the Broncos Floyd Little.
(I couldn't help but ask Los Angeles' beloved Silverton, the powerhouse behind Campanile, LaBrea Bakery and Osteria Mozza, what she thought about the idea of football returning to LA. "I'm not a football fan, but it would be great for the city. I'd love to have someone to root for at these things, " she replied.)
The sold-out Ft. Worth Convention Center played host to 3,500 guests who paid at least $500 to $600 a ticket. It's an even mix of fans incredibly excited to sample all the smoked duck and sweet potato risotto they could get their hands on and fans going from station to station with special Taste of the NFL helmets and footballs sold at the event just to spend just a few minutes with Hall of Famers Steve Largent and Jack Youngblood. More than a few people were heard saying to various players over handshakes, "I cannot wait to tell my dad I met you."
Regional flavors -- albeit much dressier and more upscale than what you typically find at a tailgate -- may have been the theme, but being in Ft. Worth meant many chefs gravitated to barbecue and Tex-Mex influences to show off their skills with a grill. As former Eagle Jerry Sisemore noted about the cherry wood smoked brisket being served by his partner chef Jack McDavid from Philadelphia's Jack's Firehouse, "I didn't think anyone from Virginia could make brisket this good."
When asked who was going to win the Super Bowl, Sisemore joked, "Pittsburgh's won enough for awhile. I'm a Packer fan. I've got a real good friend who's a die-hard Packer fan, so it will be fun to scream my head off with her. But it usually works out be the opposite of what I say."
Both the Packers and the Steelers team booths were positioned side-by-side in a showdown; chef Sanford D'Amato's spiced Wisconsin cranberry broth with crispy walnut cranberry turnover and maple cream versus chef Anthony Zallo's gnocchi with exotic mushrooms, gorgonzola and toasted walnuts.
Cranberries? Isn't Wisconsin the land of the Cheesehead?
"Wisconsin produces more cranberries than any other state," the James Beard award-winning chef D'Amato answered proudly.
Chefs not only volunteer their time at the event, but they donate much of the food that is served -- supplemented by food provided by sponsors -- to help keep fundraiser's cost lean, and rely on the dozens of local volunteer culinary students to help with both the week of prep work and day-of assistance. Chef Zallo, not to be outdone in the affable department, spoke energetically about his roots starting in the Italian kitchen of Pittsburgh's Tambellini's and how his mother helped him make a lot of the gnocchi he was serving at the Taste of the NFL party. His and his mother's dish was only rivaled by the endless line of Steelers fans waiting to talk to two time Super Bowl winner Andy Russell. Zallo eyed the line and the silent auction bidding, "Our team raised the most money with the signed helmet last year."
Texas being Texas and Dallas fans being Dallas fans, lines quickly formed for both host chef Kent Rathburn's chipotle cured pork shoulder tacos with charred corn pico de gallo relish and tomatillo lime salsa (leaving out even just one ingredient in the description seemed wrong) and for his partner, former Cowboys defensive tackle Chad Hennings. Walking around not only the Taste of the NFL but all of the Metroplex area, one would think the Cowboys were playing tomorrow with the amount of love all the fans are showing their team. It may be Green Bay and Pittsburgh's day on Sunday, but the rest of the week belongs to native Texans, even if they had to ask "How you eat a pierogi?" when faced with Tribeca Grill chef Stephen Lewandowski's braised beef pierogies with horseradish sour cream.
Guests from New York and Philadelphia heaped praise upon Oakland Raiders representative chef Josh Thomsen's short ribs and Atlanta Falcons chef Kevin Rathbun's (brother of Dallas chef Kent Rathburn) rosemary grilled cover steak. Dessert, as always, went fast at Minnesota's chef Lynne Hackman's booth.
A couple of hours in and the party hit the wall usually seen at weddings when guests struggle to find room for cake. A lull in sampling saw people spending more time in the silent auction area bidding on vacations to Africa, private golf lessons with former Cowboys players and various team memorabilia, plus items from artists and musicians. Perhaps a sign of the age, bidding on a signed Justin Bieber photo outpaced the Elvis memento up for auction beside it. A group of very serious looking fans hovered closely around the auction for seats in the lower 100s section for Sunday's game, discussing with some concern how this had been the toughest Super Bowl to get tickets for right before the game, a sentiment heard throughout the night for those still looking for seats. Newly crowned Miss America Teresa Scanlan wandered through the crowd, displaying a diamond necklace guests could win along with a pair of Super Bowl tickets by buying a $100 raffle ticket from the dozen or so Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader Alumnae walking the floor.
Around 10 p.m. guests started to drift towards the stage for country music star Martina McBride's concert to close out the night, just as New York Jets representative chef Shin Tsujimura of the world famous Nobu ran out of food, as did many other popular booths.
As his station wound down, Oakland Raiders Super Bowl XI team member and 16-year participant in the Taste of the NFL Pete Banaszak had a chance to reflect. "Give credit to the mayor and the people of Ft. Worth, this is one of the best venues we've had. The people are very cordial. It's been a great twenty year anniversary."
Why do you keep returning to this party?
"It's something to give back. We didn't make the money the players make today, all the guys that are in the room tonight. But one thing we do, we know how to give back. It's the best party of the Super Bowl, because it has a purpose," Banaszak said.
When asked who he was rooting for, Banaszak was quick with this answer. "Green Bay. Because I grew up on a farm 50 miles north of Green Bay. I can change my allegiances for one day to root for Green Bay."
Sarah writes about sports, food and Los Angeles at sarahsprague.com.