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From fine dining to fan dining; the chef behind Staples Center foods

By Hayley Fox
Published: Wednesday, February 06, 2013, at 07:09AM
Hussein Katz

Specialty hot dog paninis are prepped in one of the Staples Center's main three kitchens.

Popcorn, hot dogs and pizza are just part of the game-day scene at Downtown's Staples Center, but orchestrating concessions for 18,000 is no simple feat.

Executive Chef Joseph Martin oversees two restaurants, three kitchens, hundreds of employees and multiple menus of food for Staples Center sports games and special events.

“We order everyday to make sure everything’s fresh but we got to make sure that we continually order like a day or two out so we don’t run out of the product for the guest," said Martin. "We can order as much as $40,000 a day or as least as $10,000 – it just depends on what kind of games coming up, what kind of events.”

Fine dining to fan dining

Martin used to work for the Ritz-Carlton on the East Coast, but when he moved to Los Angeles he began re-purposing his culinary skills by working in and overseeing kitchens at Dodger Stadium and now, Staples Center.

He said that working in a sports venue kitchen combines two of his passions; food and sports.

Martin works under Levy Restaurants -- a company which provides food for ballparks, sports arenas, music venues and other large-scale catering events across the country: "Whether we have 80 seats or 80,000, we obsess about every detail of the guest experience to make sure it’s the best it can be," says a statement on their website.

But their massive commercial operation doesn't seem to hamper Martin's creativity. From trying to incorporate more organic and sustainable food into the venue's sit-down restaurants, to coming up with new takes on old sports food favorites, Martin is often experimenting with recipes. Recently, he has been working on a menu for the upcoming Grammy's (which apparently includes an extensive dessert bar).

Although Levy provides the food for both Dodger Stadium and Staples, Martin says the DTLA venue distinguishes its concessions with items like the Downtown Dog, a hot dog smothered in nacho cheese and chili, and the L.A. Cheesesteak, which plays off the traditional Philly favorite by adding pico de gallo, guacamole and queso fresco.

The fans' favorites

While many use a night out at the Staples as a chance to indulge in the greasy and the cheesy, Sean Reza, a season ticket holder of three years, said he's tried almost everything at the venue and now sticks to turkey sandwiches.

"Everything’s pretty much great, but I’ve tried the junk food, the popcorn, the nachos, but I keep coming back to this place,” he said.

Reza was with his friend Danny Desuse, who said he thinks the food at Staples is better than some sports venues, but not all of them; Desuse said San Francisco has by far the most options.

Most fans snacking on the main concourses said that Staples Center concessions seemed to be fairly average sports arena grub, but there's a whole other culinary world on the upper premier levels (only accessible to private and premier ticket-holders).

There are two sit-down restaurants which Martin oversees -- the San Manuel Club and the Lexus Club,, both feature actual glassware and table linens, and serve dishes including sushi and salads, hand-carved meats and specialty dishes.

While at San Manuel you can sip a glass of wine while you watch the Lake Show warm up, and from the Lexus Club...well, you can't get into the private Lexus Club without a pricey membership, so most of us will never have access to the candy table set up in there.

Other cooks in the kitchen

In addition to Staples Center guests, Martin said he also has a responsibility to the other chefs he works with. He said he tries to arm others with the experience and training they need to eventually move on and run a kitchen for themselves.

Culinary Supervisor Bob Davidson, 60, has only worked at Staples Center for a few months but said so far, he's loving it.

"It's great," he said. "I love sports, I love entertainment, so I couldn't find a better fit."

Davidson moved to L.A. from Oregon where he worked as a cook for the Portland Timbers soccer team; now, he works at Staples, making sure all the food is distributed to the concession stands for games. With the Kings back on the ice, the Staples Center kitchens will be working overtime to accommodate multiple double-header days.

"It becomes a bigger chore but we get everybody to chip in and it becomes a team effort," said Davidson. "It's got to get done so it gets done."

No more fried chicken

Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Blake Griffin and other Staples Center athletes are also fed by Chef Martin and his team.

If the Lakers have an early game they will often get their own omelet station, said Martin, and if certain players have a special food request (a recent one was for gluten-free pancakes), the chef makes sure those are fulfilled as well.

Martin said that most of these specific requests aren't too off-the-wall, but they are very specific -- and increasingly healthy.

"These athletes are lasting longer in their careers, or they want to at least, so I think from what I’ve seen in the last eight years of what people order is a lot more healthy," said Martin. "You know you ask me this question eight years ago, seven years ago…yeah, they’re having fried chicken, they’re having mashed potatoes with extra butter..."

From Staples to Skid Row

By now, there is a fairly dependable system that helps Martin accurately estimate how much food is needed for each game. He said that Staples' 13-year-old history helps identify patterns of eating, so most of the time there aren't many leftovers after games.

When there is, the kitchen sends those hot dogs, pretzels and popcorn to the nearby Midnight Mission on Skid Row, so the folks on Skid Row can eat just like the Staples Center fans do … at least, like most of them.

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