Lenny Martinsen has worked four Super Bowls, hosting one as Centerplate’s executive head chef of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. But now he’s in the midst of prepping his third mini-Super Bowl at New Orleans’ Smoothie King Center, site of this weekend’s National Basketball Association All-Star Game festivities.
Also, the executive head chef of the arena next door to the Superdome, Martinsen said tackling an NBA All-Star Game balloons in scale each year—first in 2008, then in 2014 and now 2017. “It amazes me how this thing grows,” he said. “It is like a mini-Super Bowl with the planning we have. We have events going all week long. We have basically three back-to-back games. This is a Super Bowl in an arena.”
Martinsen said this not because of the 18,000-plus that will fill the Smoothie King Center on Sunday for the big game, but because of the weeklong VIP events in both the center and the Superdome, not to mention the All-Star weekend festivities that fill the center Friday and Saturday evenings and spill into the outdoor Champions Square.
“It is not just about the basketball game,” he said. “We do basketball for the Pelicans. We have both buildings going full blast.”
Everything started on Monday, as Martinsen’s team was in charge of feeding crews and setting up all the events. He breaks down the week into four categories—each handled by a different chef. One chef will take all the catered luncheons in the dome. Another handles catered dinners in the dome. A third plans for feeding employees and tackling breakfast and the fourth chef plans for the three events in the center. “They each have a piece of the world and concentrate on their own piece,” he said. “But their piece is a big piece. It is basically how you eat an elephant. One bite at a time.”
Each chef handles orders on his own, independent of each other. But even that takes planning on Martinsen’s level, as he must stagger deliveries and preparation to fall in line with the available storage space. While bringing additional chefs and managers to help handle the crush of events, he said doing the homework ahead of the weekend, from ordering the special-event souvenir napkins and cups right down to ensuring they have enough chicken tenders ready to go, proves critical to a smooth weekend.
And while all the outlying events—Martinsen expects 3,000 covers per day between all the catered events starting on Wednesday, including up to 1,500 dinners each night—take up the extra planning, even knowing he won’t have more than capacity at Smoothie King Center doesn’t mean it is strictly business as usual there. With so many out-of-town guests, he’ll have more than the average number of folks hit the concessions.
Martinsen hasn’t estimated a per cap range, but he plans to feed roughly 20,000 people each of the three marquee nights for the Friday celebrity game, Saturday skills contests and Friday’s All Star Game, about three times what they expect for a Pelicans weekend.
“It is all part of the experience,” he said. “Who goes to a sporting event and doesn’t eat? We take a lot of pride in delivering the best and we make it part of the total experience. It is not just about the game, it is about the food. It is part of the experience.”
And having a New Orleans-specific experience really helps set the Smoothie King Center apart. Already Martinsen’s team features jambalaya and gumbo, a mac and cheese stand with multiple options, their own housemade pizza and shrimp po’boys. In the club level, Martinsen enlisted the help of local chefs — he specifically tapped a crew from the World War II Museum — to help run action stations with prime rib, seafood quesadillas and a pork belly po’boy. “It is a little unique and ties to New Orleans,” he said.
Along with all the regular items, Centerplate introduced a brand-new fresh burger station in the week leading up to All-Star. The new stand features a Mardi Gras King Cake Burger with a bacon-onion-chipotle spread on a king cake bun. “You talk about fun and exciting and you talk about Mardi Gras season,” he said of the item that runs $12.50 with fries. “It is a showcase of fun food. Everybody is getting a kick out of it and it tastes pretty darn good. You aren’t going to be able to go to Cleveland and get a Mardi Gras King Crab Cake burger.” And don’t forget the new $13 seafood nachos.
Having hosted two previous All-Star Games, Martinsen said he was able to pull up prior staffing levels to give him an idea of what to expect and also fall back on the idea that mega events aren’t easy. Rather, they’re hard. “The crowd is going to be big, the people will be from out of town and will ask what’s in the burger and you need to know,” he said. “There is a lot.I remember; it is not easy. You have to stay on top of it, everything from the box lunches to VIP events.”
To make it all happen, his beefed-up staff must prepare for 15-hour days three days in a row, but they all want the chance. “Once you get in there, there is an adrenaline rush of the special occasion and being on television,” he said. “My guys get into it. You want to do this stuff. Not everybody gets to do the All-Star Game.”