15 Jun The Class of the Field
“Here’s your lunch and if you’ll excuse me” I announced as I handed the paper plates to Juan and Jimmy. I was serving lunch to two professional racing drivers that I respected and admired yet at that moment I was certain no one wanted me near them. The producer was having none of it. She had a cameraman, a sound guy dangling a protruding microphone over my shoulder and two a/v techs all trying to put together a show and she wasn’t going to let me out of this tiny room.
“Ask them how it is” she whispered as she poked me in my back.
Not four weeks earlier I had convinced the Food Network to send me to the Chicago Speedway so I could cook for Chip Ganassi’s Indy car team. It was all for Food Fantasy, one of their new shows for 2000. To say that I’m a racing fan doesn’t quite cut it. I love it. The high technology of the cars and the driver’s ability all fascinate me. A 1500 pound car that can accelerate to 100 mph in less than four seconds, hit 230 in a straight line and pull hard enough through a turn to burst the blood vessels in your eye takes a very special person to control. And of all the drivers that have come and gone in this sport one of my favorites was Jimmy Vasser. A fast, talented and energetic Californian, Jimmy seemed to be a guy that was in love with his sport and all its trappings. He was constantly signing autographs, shaking hands and giving interviews. I’m not going to use the word hero (that word should only describe someone that risks their life to save someone else) but he was certainly the guy I rooted for when it was time to go racing. So when I decided to try to get onto Food Fantasy, why not go for broke? I asked to cook for Jimmy Vasser. Within a week’s time the production company, Food Network and Chip Ganassi’s team had all agreed and three weeks later Amy and I boarded a plane for Chicago.
At the track I was introduced to Ganassi’s chef, Jon Wheeler. Jon was incredibly accommodating and thrilled to be getting some attention. The Ganassi team is enormous, maybe only a third of the folks actually travel to the races. For one weekend Jon represented all of the hard working team members that made sure Jimmy was ready to go when the green flag dropped. He gave me an extended tour of the inner workings of the team then we spent the morning prepping three different meals; mustard and herb crusted grouper with asparagus and Parmesan risotto for the VIP’s, lasagna and Caesar salad for the mechanics and a very simple grilled chicken with noodles for the drivers. Since this was a Friday the drivers were on track for timed practice from ten in the morning until twelve noon. After this the drivers retreated to the sanctity of the engineer’s room built into the back end of the team’s custom tractor-trailer where they were debriefed by a slew of dour engineers that specialized in specific aspects of the car. Now keep in mind that this sport is deadly serious and as much time as the drivers spend in the limelight, they need to balance that with time spent their engineers and mechanics. Through a myriad of adjustments, an Indy car can be tailored to suit the nuance of each track and the driver is the interface between the car and the engineers. When Jimmy Vasser twists into a corner at 165 mph, he needs to know that his car is going to follow him. So as soon as Jimmy climbed out of the car he heads for the sanctity of the team’s trailer.
Jon and I were working away, his kitchen is maybe eight feet by six feet wide and on race day he’ll cook for roughly 400 guests. Today it’s only 125 and Jon asks me to prepare the driver’s meals. These guys don’t want anything unfamiliar on their system when they climb into their cars so during a race weekend they’ll eat the same meal: chicken with penne pasta, a touch of cream, butter and some Parmesan cheese. We set up the VIP’s buffet, then the mechanic’s buffet, then we wrap up the two plates for the drivers and Jon hands them to me. I turned to the camera and smiled then asked Jon if the drivers know we’re coming. When I say “we” I mean myself and the five folks from Banyan productions. As we’re exiting the kitchen Jon nods to Brenda, their P/R gal and she exclaims “let me go give the guys a heads up!” Brenda bolts off in front of us. Jon and I are headed to the engineer’s room with our own team of intruders in tow.
“Jimmy and Juan do know that we’re here, right Jon?” Jon smiles and shrugs his shoulders. We make our way through the maze of activity then Jon opens a tiny door that leads into the engineer’s room, says hello then pushes me in. There are at least 12 guys in this room and 11 of them are frowning or diverting their eyes. One guy shakes his head and looks away as another mumbles WTF under his breath. The team manager puts his head in his right palm as if to say “How the hell did this happen?” I’ve never felt more unwelcome in my life and my confidence and excitement have gone right out the window. Juan Montoya reaches for his plate and looks away. I’m mumbling something like “hope you enjoy it” when Jimmy Vasser stands up, looks me in the eye and smiles. He takes the plate then makes a big deal of saying how great it smells, mugs for the camera, offers a thumbs-up.
“Man I’m hungry, thanks chef!” I felt the producer’s hand ease off of my back and we made our exit. Whew! I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. We then chatted with the mechanics who between huge bites of lasagna offer us high-fives and thumbs-up. Jon slaps me on the back then asks if I can stick around long enough to help him clean up.
“Sure thing Jon.” We chat outside the kitchen for a few minutes when Jimmy Vasser walks up to me. He’s carrying his helmet and smiling as if he’s just won the lottery. With the cameras rolling Jimmy thanks me, hands me a couple of signed hats and shirts, complimentary race tickets and two VIP passes to the race. He offers me a surfer’s hand shake then pats his stomach. And even though when he’s racing, he eats the same meal for lunch and dinner for those three days, he puts his hand on my shoulder and turns to the camera.
“Lunch sure was delicious chef.” I know he’s putting on a show and he certainly didn’t have to, but he wanted to. I suddenly feel ten feet tall. Jimmy Vasser, the 1996 Indy car Champion, a guy I followed through glossy racing magazines and auto enthusiast websites is telling me what a great cook I am.
“Thanks for putting up with us Jimmy.”
Most of us admire our sports super stars from a distance and far too often these multi-millionaires end up in the tabloids for all the wrong reasons, disappointing their fans and those that believed in them. Yet our worship of a celebrity is often misguided, based on their ability in a particular discipline and nothing more. Jimmy Vasser is now a team owner and I can say from personal experience that there’s at least one gentleman in my favorite sport.