At 4 a.m. on a Sunday, most people are deep in slumber — if they’re not just stumbling into bed after a night of bar-hopping. But in the warren beneath the seats at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Nikki Olst is prepping for another game day. Olst is the stadium executive chef for Epicurean Catering, the company that provides food for all 140 suites at Mile High. At every Denver Broncos home game, as well as upwards of 200 other events a year (weddings, benefits and other parties), she leads a team of cooks to provide everything from spiced nuts and popcorn for football fans to high-end plated dishes and desserts for special events.
At this time of year, the focus is on football. The stadium’s suite level can hold a total of about 4,000 guests, and each room has its own menu requests and particular needs. “It’s basically like 140 separate parties all starting at once,” Olst explains. Although there’s a “Special Teams” package menu for each game with a dozen or so snacks, starters, salads, entrees and desserts, suite owners often put in requests to impress guests or provide specific dishes for those with dietary restrictions.
“Tastings and research begin months out,” Olst says. She and her crew write menus for each game as soon as the NFL season schedule is released in the spring, balancing comfort-food classics that appeal to sports fans, fancier dishes with local ingredients, and regional dishes from the visiting team’s home. When the Baltimore Ravens came to town in mid-September, for example, Dungeness crab cakes made the cut, as did a seasonal gratin of mustard greens and potatoes meant to highlight Colorado’s produce more than emulate Maryland cuisine. Epicurean also partners with local producers such as Tender Belly bacon, Continental Sausage and even Sushi Sasa to provide specialty foods.
The prep for a Sunday game begins the previous Monday with housemade sauces and dressings and continues through the week. Produce is not delivered to the stadium until two days before the game to ensure freshness. Meats are prepped and marinated on Saturday, and slow-cooked dishes — like the roast porchetta served at the Minnesota Vikings game — go into the ovens Sunday morning. Thursday-night games compress the entire schedule, but Olst, now in her fifth football season with Epicurean, has learned how to deal with short weeks and short-notice events like home playoff games. The chef was hired in 2011 for her pastry skills but quickly moved up the ladder to executive chef. “Luckily, I work for a company that believes in promoting from within,” she says.
Olst was late to the culinary game: After graduating from college in Michigan (where she was born and raised), she moved to Colorado for a business internship. Aside from a brief stint as co-owner of a cupcake shop, her career path steered clear of professional kitchens until she was 29. That’s when, while still holding down an office job during the day, she earned a culinary degree by attending night classes at the Art Institute of Colorado. Then she headed to Orvieto, Italy, for a four-month stint at Ristorante Zeppelin, where she honed her skills making pasta and other Italian dishes six days a week and broadened her palate by venturing to other cities on her days off.
“I still make a mean carbonara,” she says of the skills she gained. And true to what she learned in Italy, she only makes the dish with guanciale (cured pork jowl) — never with American-style smoked bacon or peas, she notes with mock horror. Other meals in Italy, like a memorable wild-boar dinner featuring four preparations of meat from a beast that had been shot that morning, gave her an appreciation for whole-animal butchery. Olst recently took butchering classes through the Rocky Mountain Institute of Meat and is now a teacher’s assistant with the program; she hopes to introduce more whole-muscle usage to her menus at the stadium and works with Corner Post Meats in Colorado Springs to source pasture-raised meats.
Pastry remains one of Olst’s fortes, and under her guidance, Epicurean has gone from making about 30 percent of its own desserts at Mile High to more than 90 percent. Vats of nacho cheese are an expected sight at a football game, but in the Epicurean kitchen, you’ll also see pastry bags filled with mousse and trays of handmade chocolate truffles. During the Vikings game, suite guests were treated to individual tiramisu bundt cakes.
With so much going on behind the scenes, Olst wants to make sure that well-fed football fans can focus on the game, so hospitality is central to Epicurean’s program. Most food is moved from the ground-floor kitchen to the suites an hour before kickoff, and pantry chefs are stationed in eight prep rooms on the suite level to prepare à-la-minute items. Still, with the volume of food and staff — a total of 150 front- and back-of-house employees are on hand for game-time service, Olst says — mishaps can occur. At this year’s Rocky Mountain Showdown between Colorado State University and the University of Colorado, a hot box loaded with twenty pans of food was toppled as it exited the freight elevator onto the suite level, but a cleanup crew took care of the mess before guests noticed, and food was shifted from other stations to cover the loss. Since such major disasters occur only about once a year, Olst says she hopes the rest of the season will go without incident.
At a game last year, a tray of sushi from Sushi Sasa was delivered to the wrong suite and was already partially devoured before the mistake was noticed, so Olst called the restaurant, which had a replacement tray ready when she arrived in a cab to pick it up. “The whole thing took about twenty minutes, and everyone was happy,” she recalls.
During the off-season, Olst and her team provide food for the many banquets and other events held at the stadium, ranging from ten-person private parties to bashes of 5,000 or more; one of her favorites is the annual John Lynch Foundation Salute to the Stars luncheon, during which more than 1,000 guests are served on the football field. “It’s our chance to be creative,” she says. “I’m really lucky, and we’re fortunate — we have a lot of room to play.”
Charitable missions are important to Epicurean chairman and CEO Larry DiPasquale, who founded the company in 1983; he’s a member of the board of directors of We Don’t Waste, an organization that takes food that otherwise might be wasted in the food-service industry and distributes it to those in need. “We throw away very little food,” Olst explains, noting that any food that has been prepped and maintained at safe temperatures but not served is collected by We Don’t Waste volunteers after food service has ended at football games and other events. “They distribute food as far away as Wyoming,” she adds.
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If you’ve ever had the opportunity to watch a game from one of Sports Authority Field’s suites, you know that the mood can be electric: Open windows facing the field channel the noise of the crowd into the room while chaotic fun mounts as opposing fans (corporate guests often travel from the visiting team’s city) and Broncos supporters all root for a win in the tight space. While big businesses usually provide the big money needed to secure a suite, once you’re inside, the atmosphere is more like a house party — only with a view of a live game. It’s an unbeatable experience.
Whether you’re digging into smoked ribs and brisket at a Kansas City Chiefs game or enjoying clam chowder when the Patriots come to town, dedicate your next high-five to Olst and her team. Somewhere far beneath your seat, they’re scoring another culinary win for football fans.