Ex-Bacchanalia chef takes new approach to courtside cuisine at Philips

Last summer, Joe Schafer made a surprise move, trading his job as executive chef at Bacchanalia for that of exec chef at Philips Arena, home to the Atlanta Hawks.

Would the change also mean swapping white tablecloths, high-provenance ingredients and all the glitz that garnered Bacchanalia aplomb in the movie “Baby Driver” as “the finest wining and dining of all the wines and dines in town” in exchange for popcorn, hot dogs, nachos and other stadium fare of old?

Apparently not.

On Feb. 7, the Hawks unveiled the first of Schafer’s handiwork to culinary operations at Philips Arena. The fixings weren’t typical courtside cuisine.

There was a 5-foot spread of cheese and charcuterie, along with fancy proteins like rack of lamb with chimichurri, crispy duck confit a l’orange and whole roasted guinea hen. Vegetables, such as bok choy with crispy garlic, charred and chilled rapini and roasted butternut squash with a sherry gastrique, were clearly concoctions from the mind of a chef. A cook manning the pizza oven pulled out pie after pie as well as stromboli. For carb lovers, there was a tartiflette, a bacon, cheese and potato gratin. The sweet toothed could indulge in a massive skillet of peach cobbler.

“We wanted to bring fine dining and entertainment together,” said Hawks CEO Steve Koonin about the improved food and beverage experience that is part of a $192.5 million transformation of the 18-year-old venue that will be completed in time for the team’s 2018-19 season. 

This fall season will also see the debut of Zac Brown’s Social Club, a Southern-style restaurant from musician Zac Brown, along with Topgolf Swing Suites — two suites featuring Topgolf simulators, HDTVs and lounge seating inside a high-end suite with a view into the arena bowl. Also in the works is Killer Mike’s S.W.A.G. Shop, a barber shop from Atlanta rapper, actor and activist Killer Mike.

“We’re rebuilding this arena from the roofline to the baseline. Every element will be new,” Koonin said, stating that the organization hopes to make an experience at Philips Arena “among the most fun and interesting evenings,” but that “It all starts with food.”

In placing a premium on food and beverage, the Hawks follow suit with sports and entertainment venues around the country, including Philips’ new neighbor, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and SunTrust Park, with its adjoining entertainment area The Battery.

Tapped to impact all aspects of the food, dining and hospitality experience at Philips is Schafer, who brings with him 22 years of culinary experience. Besides Bacchanalia, he helmed the kitchens at such upscale restaurants as the now-defunct Little Bacch and Abattoir as well as worked alongside Ford Fry at King + Duke.

“I had a long, awesome career in fine dining and nice restaurants, and came to a point where I was looking to see what I would do next,” Schafer said.

In his role, he oversees all culinary operations — concessions, suites, catering, and private clubs — at the venue.

The dishes on display that evening offered a taste of the all-inclusive food and beverage available at the new Courtside Club, a premium club accessible to those with courtside tickets. It is one of six clubs at the arena, all of which will open in time for the fall season.

Revamped concessions will also roll out when the Hawks’ 2018-19 season commences.

In addressing the crowd, Schafer said that part of the impetus for joining the organization was because he “wanted to learn something different.”

Shifting from a white tablecloth setting to that of live sports and entertainment has not been without challenges, he said.

“Staffing has been the biggest deal,” he said. “We have 100 professionals working underneath me. In the premium side, everything except for concessions — the clubs, the catering — there is a small group of people that are pretty much there every single day. In concessions, there are a ton of people working over there. It’s hard for me to keep up with them.”

Sourcing has been another head-scratcher. “That has been a big challenge,” he said. “I can’t just call any little farm and expect they can get to the arena. I have limited available time for deliveries. You can’t deliver anything on the day of a concert. The scheduling of deliveries is a hard one to get around.”

And there’s the issue of ordering food on a much greater scale than at a restaurant.

To bring in fresh, seasonal product and support local farmers, Schafer said that he has begun to work with Georgia Grown, using the organization as a broker to cull product from multiple farmers and deliver it all at once rather than place individual orders from each grower himself.

“We haven’t cracked that code, but we’re starting to figure it out,” he said.

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