Too many chefs today ‘put the cart before the horse,’ says this stadium specialist. So, he emphasizes details and the basics.
At A Glance: SPORTSERVICE
•Revenue: Around $500 million
•Services: Concessions, upscale dining and catering (suites)
•Accounts: American Airlines Center (Dallas Stars, Dallas Mavericks); Bush Stadium (St. Louis Cardinals); TD Banknorth Garden (Boston Bruins, Boston Celtics); Miller Park (Milwaukee Brewers); Petco Park (San Diego Padres)
Born in Bavaria 38 years ago, Rolf Baumann left home at the age of 14 to embark on a three-year-long apprenticeship, the beginning of his official culinary training. Following several years of restaurant experience in Heilbronn, Germany, Baumann came to the U.S. in 1984 to work as a pastry chef for Marriott Market Center in Dallas.
During the 1980s, he earned positions of greater responsibility in hotels throughout the country. In 1991, he opened restaurants in several midwestern cities as well as Baumann’s Bistro in Jonesboro, AR; all were sold by the end of the decade.
In 1998, Baumann joined Delaware North Companies’ Sportservice as executive chef for Busch Stadium, home of the 2006 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, with responsibility for all premium dining restaurants and concessions totaling 70 outlets and generating $47 million in annual revenue. While there, he also contributed to Sportservice’s culinary research and menu development and assisted with food and beverage service for other Sportservice-managed events including the Australian Open, Major League Baseball All-Star Game and the National Hockey League All-Star Game.
For the past seven years, as corporate chef for Sportservices’ Well Bread Restaurant Services Group, Baumann has been splitting his time between two home bases: a condo in St. Louis and an apartment in Buffalo. But his stays are infrequent, since he’s on the road about 85% of the time, overseeing and mentoring 22 Sportservice culinary teams in North America.
As a classically trained chef and avowed perfectionist, Baumann’s work ensures the quality and variety of Well Bread’s food offerings at baseball parks, arenas and entertainment complexes across the country and in Canada. It’s a task he lives and breathes 24/7. He only wishes there were more hours in a day to devote to his all-consuming passion—food.
Karen Weisberg, FSD’s senior editor, recently pried Baumann away from work to get his comments on his frenetic lifestyle and to share his insights on what it takes to build a highly successful career.
KW: You’re on the road 85% of the time. What’s your goal for each site visit?
Baumann: Normally, I spend two days in each place—one day to make my observations, the next to correct the food and the way chefs handle themselves, sanitation, food quality. We set standards and they must maintain those standards or exceed the bar.
Most chefs have an outdated mentality regarding food display. Today, there should be smaller portions, nutritional value—and presentation is huge. I need to get them updated to 2006.
KW: How do you make that happen?
Baumann: I grab the chef and say, ‘Walk with me. Tell me what’s wrong with it.’ Often they just don’t know how to get to the solution. Sarcasm, in a nice way, is a good way to get to them because most have a passion about food.
KW: When do you have time for yourself?
Baumann: I haven’t taken a vacation in five years and not a day off in eight months. What I live for is to make each place a little better when I leave—make the guests happy, the clients happy. Saturdays and Sundays are the busiest times in this business—the world doesn’t stop because we take a day off. Everybody has to eat. I visit 22 units in the course of the year with multiple visits to the five or six that are a bit more demanding. When I do take a day off, I’ll usually spend five to seven hours in the office.
KW: How do you keep in shape?
Baumann: For the last three years I have tried to work out three times a week when I get off work. My normal day starts at 3 a.m. and I’m at work by 4 a.m. 90% of the time. For a recent St. Louis Rams’ football game, I clocked about 17 miles on my pedometer, so the job is physically demanding.
KW: Do you actually have time to cook on the job?
Baumann: I’m still cooking four to five hours a day in the kitchen. If you don’t maintain your kitchen etiquette—your skills—you’ll lose the timing, the efficiency, the creativity. I wish I could spend more time in the kitchen. It’s also good for young chefs to see the corporate chef working side by side with the staff.
KW: How do you mentor the younger chefs?
Baumann: I spend four hours at a time giving practicals, that is, cooking tests. Every time we give a practical to a chef who wants a job at sous chef level or above, I’ll assign a commis [a beginning chef] to the chef who’s taking the exam. It’s an education for the chefs when I get done with them.
KW: Do younger chefs accept your classical methods?
Baumann: I’m a very fundamental chef; a lot of chefs are weak on the fabrication skills—for example, how to make a sauce correctly. Even though basics are fundamental, in 2006 they want to put the cart before the horse. There is a debate regarding do we need to know the classics. Yes, you need to know how to make the basic sauce before you can go and experiment.
KW: Surrounded by food all day, what do you choose to eat after work when you’re home?
Baumann: Usually I eat out or at either of the two units in St. Louis or in Buffalo when I’m ‘home.’ I eat healthy—sushi or a light fish under four ounces.
KW: What do you love to cook?
Baumann: Fish, anytime. I think the number of species is incredible, but I prepare it simply so not to mask the flavor of the fish. And I love to bake artisan breads, such asiago with goat cheese and caramelized onions—and pastries. For every big function, I do all the breads. Bread is the first impression of the meal. Also, I’m German and bread is a big part of my life. The hardest thing is pastries because the discipline is difficult. You have to watch it constantly and pay more attention to detail. Plus, it’s very labor intensive.
KW: If stranded on a desert island, what two kitchen items would you want to have?
Baumann: I’d have my French knife and a sauté pan, then I could make five-star meals for anyone.
KW: If you actually took a vacation, where would you go and what would you do?
Baumann: I’d like to have the time off to see what are the new trends in food. I’d go to Bavaria and talk to the restaurant chefs—and ask to be their commis for a day because you learn so much!
KW: Who was your greatest influence?
Baumann: My grandmother owned a guesthouse in Germany—she was one great cook. I was forced labor in her kitchen. I remember her onion cake, served as an appetizer with wine sauce to dip it in. I ate that when I was seven or eight—I have a good memory for food, not for school.
KW: What do you wish for at this stage of your life?
Baumann: I wish I was more diplomatic. I definitely get the respect and response I want but I’d like to have the diplomacy skills to deal with investors and get someone to use my name and provide the dollars to open a restaurant. They use their money and I do the work—it’s called sweat equity. I’m also planning a book, “Secrets of a Stadium Chef,” and I’m now in the process of getting a publisher and a writer.
KW: What’s your recipe for success?
Baumann: It depends on the individual. I want to be the best—I’m not the type of chef who wants to be second best. I feel it would be an injustice working only 9 to 5. Obviously, it pays off. I’m 38 years old and corporate chef of a $2-billion corporation and there’s a reason why.