Critic-Turned-Cook Strikes Out At Ballpark Tasting

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Safeco Field. [Flickr: SD Dirk]

Even though it's been more than a year since the end of my professional eating career ended, I still occasionally get invited to media events. Sometimes, I even go.

Earlier this week, I jumped at the chance to get a sneak snack preview of the new lineup of ballpark chow at Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners. The ballpark's new executive chef, Jim Makinson, revamped the menu from top to bottom, from the plush suites to the nosebleed seats with a sharper focus on local ingredients.

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Seafood at the stadium. [Photograph: Leslie Kelly]

Say hello to Dungeness crab sandwiches on Essential Baking Company's organic French bread, hand-cut potato chips made from high-starch Oregon spuds, and gluten-free halibut and fries. How about a howdy-do to poutine? The arrival of gravy and cheese curd topped fries has already caused quite a stir on Twitter even though the home opener's not until Monday. And let's have a big cheer for the debut of Blazing Bagels at The Safe. This tiny local chain, which uses the wonderful Shepherd's Grains flour for its bagels and flies its pastrami in from New York City, is opening up a storefront near the team store. There's also a new wine bar in the ballpark and a new pub called "99 Bottles" (you know, of beer on the wall...).

Fans can order gyros, fried chicken sandwiches, fresh-baked cookies, organic smoothies and ginormous cupcakes in addition to longtime fan favorites: Kidd Valley's Garlic Fries, Ivar's clam chowder, sushi from Rice-n-Roll, and curry from Thai Ginger.

Does this sound like your typical ballpark food? Heck nah.

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Jim Matkinson. [Photograph: Leslie Kelly]

As local TV cameras captured our group of food bloggers digging into this spread, I sidled up to Makinson and asked for a tour of his kitchen. Yes, I had a hidden agenda.

But I think I blew it before I even got out of the batter's box. Sometimes, the old critic in me just comes gushing out. When the chef asked how I liked everything, I gave my unvarnished opinion: "Everything was great except the peel-and-eat shrimp would be even better if they were cooked in a Cajun shrimp boil." Yeah, that observation went over as well as cocktail weenies at The French Laundry.

Moving right along, chef Makinson showed me around the vast kitchen, one of many in the stadium, and I popped the question: "Do you think I could come cook for you? Maybe for a week here or there during the season?"

Can you guess his reply? He didn't exactly say I was obviously a minor leaguer, but he said if I wanted to work there, I had to commit to the full season. Which, of course, would mean I'd miss sitting in the stands, eating all that fantastic food.

I choked. I am so not hardcore or I would have promised to do whatever it took to get my clog in the door and be part of that dream culinary team. (The chef and his second in command both have loads of experience working for high-end hotels. I'm sure I could learn a lot.)

But with the menu at Safeco, can you blame me for wanting to be a fan in the stands?

About the author: Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic Leslie Kelly has been apprenticing in professional kitchens since the newspaper folded in March 2009 and chronicling her culinary journey from pen to pan for Serious Eats. Inspired by Michael Ruhlman, she recently started a new project on her personal blog, exploring "An Egg A Day".

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