Adios, peanuts and crackerjacks. At more than 30 sports venues, including Churchill Downs and the homes of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Lakers, the luxury-box crowd eats from the plate of Chicago-based Levy Restaurants, the $325 million company headed by restaurateur Larry Levy. We talked with the man who brought toasted ravioli, sushi, plantains, and tuna tartare to the ol’ ballpark.
AW: How did you make the leap from white-tablecloth restaurants to ballparks?
Levy: Like all great entrepreneurial achievements, it was a total accident. Back in 1982, the Chicago White Sox were struggling to sell their new luxury boxes. They thought a restaurant catering the food would help. We said no. Then they said we’d get the best seats in the house for the All-Star Game and the World Series. That hit the right button.
AW: Do you cook much at home?
Levy: I don't cook, but I have a vision and a sense of what I want. I have a lot of confidence in my taste buds, and I can give word pictures of the flavors I'm looking for. If we're working on a sauce and I don't like the finish, I'll say put a little more smoke in it or spice it up. I like big, bold flavors.
AW: Do the players ever eat your food?
Levy: We feed the players at most of our venues. Before every Lakers game, we feed [Coach] Phil Jackson and the team. He always has grilled fish.
AW: Next season you'll start serving at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. That just doesn't seem like a couscous-and-Cabernet place.
Levy: There’s a great deal of wealth there, but it’s quiet, understated. We’ll be toning down some of what we do.
AW: Anything you've tried over the years that just didn't work?
Levy: In the mid-80s we created Eurasia, which was P. F. Chang’s fifteen years too early. The foodies loved it but it never made a profit. We still use the tuna tartare and the angel-hair pasta with sesame-chili oil in some of the suites.
AW: What's your earliest memory of ballpark food?
Levy: It was a hot dog at the old Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. Late Forties. I remember not liking it. [Today] the basic hot dog is usually a sponsor, which can be a problem if it's not a very good hot dog. So we supplement with lots of variations. My favorite is the chicken Parmesan sausage.
AW: Surrounded by all this great food, how do you keep your weight down?
Levy: I exercise fanatically every day. And I take the smallest bites you've ever seen.