Just Us Toques: How Professional Chefs Tailgate

This team of Giants-loving chefs and food pros turn every Big Blue home game into a culinary Super Bowl.

Giants Tailgate
Peter Pirrello (89) slices mozzarella he brings from Piccolo’s in Ridgefield as cheese maven Adam Burke (blue cap, center) stands with folded arms.
Photo by Michael S. Barr.

On any given sunday, the saying goes, any NFL team can beat any other NFL team. The same might be said of tailgate parties at NFL games. But if you’re the type of fan who revels in a sack of briny oysters as much as in a sack of the enemy quarterback, on any given Sunday there is one tailgate party that is very hard to beat—the one that a close-knit group of about 20 chefs and other food professionals throw in Parking Lot D2, rain or shine, every time their beloved football Giants suit up at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford.

As a rule, tailgate menus don’t vary much week to week. It’s different with the 16F/D2 Big Blue Tailgate Crew, as they call themselves—16F being the lot where they pitched their tent at the old Giants Stadium, a few hundred yards closer to Route 3, until it was torn down after the 2010 season.

The D2s tailor their entrée to the week’s opponent. When Big Blue last hosted the Arizona Cardinals, the main course was “red birds” (chickens marinated in beet juice or grenadine and roasted). The Green Bay Packers have been met with bratwurst and cheese soup, the Philadelphia Eagles with flights of cheesesteaks, the Dallas Cowboys with cowboy steaks and Texas barbecue. Last year they grilled the Seattle Seahawks—symbolically, anyway. The entrée was wild Northwest king salmon.

“We’re always devouring the opponent,” says a joyful Paul Valetutti Sr., 55, a key D2 organizer and an owner of Salumeria Biellese, the Hackensack company renowned for its heritage Italian sausages, salamis and hams.

No D2 tailgate is complete without an array of Biellese salumi spread out on a cutting board, often supplemented with roasted red peppers, long loaves of crusty Italian bread and plenty of wine and beer, not to mention ceremonial shots of Crown Royal Canadian whiskey and Knob Creek and Maker’s Mark bourbons from a portable bar that looks like a big leather briefcase when packed up.

“The bar is my self-contained admission to the party,” says Joe Loiacono, chief operating officer of Good Samaritan Hospital on Long Island. His son Brian, a chef at Daniel Boulud’s restaurant Daniel in New York, is friends with Brett Traussi, director of operations for Boulud’s restaurant group and a 16F/D2 founder.

When the Washington Redskins came to town this season on Sunday, October 21, “the guys” (as they also call themselves, including the occasional female chef in the rubric) rose to the occasion. The Redskins wear red and gold, and in their Super Bowl years, their massive offensive line was known as the Hogs. So the D2s showed up bright and early with two whole suckling pigs, each marinated 72 hours, one in grenadine and cloves (red), the other in apple cider, garlic and turmeric (gold). Hours before the 1 pm kickoff, the Redskins were already roast, if not toast, as far as the D2 crew was concerned.

The NFL limits tailgating to the five hours preceding kickoff. On Redskins Sunday, cars were already in line when the MetLife gates opened at 8 am. Among them was a large white delivery truck that said Salumeria Biellese on the sides. A kind of gastronomic Trojan Horse, it was packed with tubs of utensils, paper goods and foodstuffs, long serving tables, a tent and outdoor cooking equipment, including two bathtub-sized La Caja China charcoal-fired roasting boxes for the pigs. Oh, and a high-powered sound system ready to pump out five hours of high-intensity dance music. The truck headed straight for its regular spot facing a wide strip of grassy ground in front of the parking lot fence. Others D2ers were waiting, and in about 15 minutes everything was set up and breakfast was served: smoked salmon, cream cheese, bagels, Bloody Marys and coffee. A couple dozen people had gathered—D2ers, family and friends.

The spread kept growing. Gorgeous fruit, including heaps of red grapes a Roman emperor would kill for, came from Ben Friedman, owner of Riviera Produce in Englewood and a 16F/D2 founder. Hackensack native Adam Burke, 28, self-described “head cheese man” at Murray’s Cheese Bar in Greenwich Village, brought five exotic cheeses. The one I kept sneaking back to was an intense raw sheep’s milk French Roquefort with the texture of soft butter.

“It’s like crack,” Burke said. “I dream of that cheese.”

Joel Somerstein, 46, a veteran chef who lives in Edgewater and is a 16F/D2 founder, brought two cooking colleagues with him. While grilling sausages, they whipped up pineapple-avocado salad, lobster salad, chili and a huge pot of a gallimaufry called Parking Lot Beans.

“The first rule,” said Chris McMorrow, seeing me eyeing the food, “is don’t wait to be asked to eat. Just eat. We don’t want to take anything home.” McMorrow, 51, an executive with Anheuser-Busch, brings cases of beer from the Newark plant (and pays for them, he points out).

The spreads have come a long way since the chefs began tailgating in 1998 with a small table of cold sandwiches. Bradford Thompson, the fourth founder, who owns a restaurant consulting business, likes to tell the story of the 2000 Redskins game when a chef tucked a cooked 40-pound pig (in a Redskins jersey) under his trench coat and hung it by a noose from a railing near their seats.

These days, everybody brings something. By the time the pork was chopped and served (with an apple chutney made on-site), about 50 men, women and children were laughing, talking and eating. Dessert was hot pumpkin fritters with crème anglaise by Beard Award-winning New York pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini.

Forget chefs’ jackets; all the guys wore Giants jerseys. I had to remind myself that the Jets play here, too.
Everyone helped pack up. In the end, many boxes and bags of refuse were piled neatly along the strip of grass. I was standing next to Paul Valetutti Jr., 29, known as Paulie, a private chef who also works with his father.

Who cleans that up? I asked

“Ha!” he said. “Jets fans!”

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