As a baseball fan who cooks professionally, Dusten Brown may have the most enviable job in Toledo: He’s the Executive Chef for the Mud Hens.
But Mr. Brown doesn’t just work for the team during baseball season. He is at “every single game,” and has even been working throughout the fall and winter to devise tempting new treats for fans to enjoy. He also handles special events, from meetings to weddings, that are held at Fifth Third Field, and likes to “cater towards excitement” while making it “a point to constantly be changing.” When meeting with clients, he’ll ask them to provide “five things you really like and five things you don’t like,” so that he can tailor a menu to personal tastes.
PHOTO GALLERY: New eats for the '14 season at Toledo Mud Hens home games
Originally from Grand Rapids, Ohio, Mr. Brown attended culinary school in Portland, Oregon, before working at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas and subsequently serving as a grill cook for famed chef Michael Mina. He returned to Ohio, but then went to work as an Executive Chef in Newburgh, N.Y. After making it through Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Mr. Brown decided to move back to his home state, where extended family lives in both the northeast and northwest corners. This is his second year with the baseball team.
“Every fall after the Mud Hens have finished the season, our food and beverage team will meet and go over new menu ideas that we have gathered throughout the season,” says Craig Nelson, President of A Cut Above Catering at Fifth Third Field. Lots of old favorites will return, but there are also many delicious rookie items this season. Mr. Brown likes to focus on a style that is reminiscent of upscale bar food, familiar but with a touch of the unexpected.
With items ranging from the delicious and decadent Mac and Cheese Dog to the cold and creamy Hot Fudge Cream Puff, which of the new treats for 2014 is Mr. Brown most excited about? Chicken and Waffles Bites might be the one. The idea first struck while visiting Cleveland, and then it evolved into what will inevitably be a popular favorite. The logistics were one obstacle to contend with: how to take a classic dish that’s famously messy, and also served on a plate at a table, and make it fan-friendly at the ball park. Dip-able nuggets, of course, were an inspired notion; they are accompanied not by full-sized waffles, but rather by triangles which are also easily held and dunked into syrup while watching the game, with no knife or fork required. Mr. Brown and his team are able to be creative with food in many ways and, as he jokes, the “best part is we have helmets to serve food in.” The game, the food, and the entire experience at the game should be fun and playful.
Where do ideas come from for the creative dishes that are served at Fifth Third Field? “Sometimes things start out as a joke,” Mr. Brown said; and in another instance, a favorite item was created accidentally when there was a miscount on a game day and a quick dessert needed to be invented in a moment of inspiration. Mr. Brown also consults with friends who live on both coasts, to ask what new foods they may have tried or what trends they’re seeing, and he will ask restaurant patrons what they’re enjoying if a dish looks interesting. Whether as a chef or as an eater, “You’ve got to be willing to try everything.” At the ball park, he finds that “people are getting excited about trying new things,” rather than merely resorting to a hot dog and a beer.
“Dusten has been a great addition to our team, it’s clear that he loves what he is doing,” says Joe Napoli, President and General Manager of the Mud Hens, “and we look forward to all of his new creations.”
Mr. Brown gives credit to the entire Mud Hens organization for his success. “The staff here really makes the season go,” from the custodial staff and the dishwashers through to the players and the front office. He says that, “Opportunities I’ve had here and people I work with here have made it so much easier.” It’s important “that they’re happy” and that “everybody else is happy.”
His family members are both his biggest critics, ready to tell him if a dish isn’t as good as it could be, but also his most heartfelt supporters. Mr. Brown is “extremely close” to his family, particularly to his grandmothers, both of whom love to cook. Although he’d originally considered computer programming or business management before choosing to attend culinary school, Mr. Brown doesn’t “know if there’s another career” he could do at this point in his life. He’s been cooking for 10 years, but he continues to “want to do more and achieve more.” It is very important to Mr. Brown to support his staff, “my team,” as he puts it, to know how they are, to keep up with how their families are doing, to encourage their endeavors. He is proud to be “very close” with them; “We get together” just as a family would.
Opening Day is Friday. Mr. Brown is as excited as the rest of the city for the new season, and has a true appreciation for its importance and significance. “Being around friends and family ... that’s what baseball seems to be.”