There are some good-looking arenas around the NBA. Brooklyn’s Barclays Center is amazing. We’ve had great times at L.A.’s Staples Center and Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy Arena, too. And from the early looks of things, San Francisco’s Chase Center will be pretty special when it opens in late 2019.
Still, from where we’re sitting, Atlanta’s new State Farm Arena — the 20-year-old Philips Arena was essentially gutted and transformed to this new venue after a $200 million makeover — may beat them all. With its open floor plan, massive jumbotron, The Swag Shop barbershop and TopGolf suites, the home of the Hawks is a free-flowing, eye-opening playground for guests. (Editor’s note: Sharecare, the sister company of Forbes Travel Guide, is a major sponsor for the team.)
But even more impressive than those fresh touches might be all the goodies coming from the kitchens around the place. There are just so many options and flavors available to you now. Whereas Philips Arena’s main dining area felt dated, almost food-court-ish, this new facility feels unified in color and has a sleek, modern style throughout.
The menus got a makeover as well. Yes, you can still find a hot dog and a Coke, but those staples are now regularly served alongside shrimp po’boys and collard greens.
Chef Joe Schafer was asked to spearhead this tasty new direction. A 20-plus-year industry vet who served as chef de cuisine at Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Bacchanalia for four years, Schafer didn’t flinch at the task. And when the new executive chef went through his contacts to ask friends to join his culinary crusade, names like restaurateur Giovanni Di Palma (of Antico fame), pitmaster Bryan Furman (from the acclaimed B’s Cracklin’ BBQ) and chef Rusty Hamlin (whom you’ll meet a little later) answered the call.
Just before this season’s tip-off, Forbes Travel Guide sat down with Schafer at the sparkling new Chefs Club to get all the juicy details on this massive undertaking, the play-by-play on working with other cooking geniuses and his take on the overall experience that Hawks fans and concertgoers can look forward to.
Chef, you’re a Georgia native. Did that help your decision to join the team?
Yeah, that definitely was a part of it. Not just being from here, but also cooking here in the city for 24 years. So, I know everybody and I have connections, and I have the availability to get vendors in here that, maybe, [the arena] didn’t before.
I was kind of contemplating moving on from where I was before, moving on from that style of service — fine dining and being in the kitchen all day. I mean, I like being in the kitchen, but I was thinking about a different thing.
What else can I learn? It kind of came up when a friend of a friend of a friend called me. He said, “Hey, we’re looking for an executive chef,” and I was like, “All right, I didn’t think about that [angle before].” And I met with the Hawks and they told me what they wanted to do and I’m like, “I’m in.” So, here we are.
What are some differences a fan wouldn’t notice between the kitchen at Bacchanalia compared to State Farm Arena?
Well, for starters, there are like 100 times more people here, staffing wise. So, you know, at Bacchanalia, I would have like one or two sous chefs beneath me; here I have six. I have six chefs to manage this whole operation. Then, under the six chefs are probably 20-something supervisors. Then, under them are probably like 120 cooks. So, it’s a huge staff.
It’s hard to touch everybody. It’s hard to have great relationships with everybody. That’s a challenge that I have because I’ve always been very personal with my people. I want to have people feel welcome. We’re chefs and cooks and we work all day, and we’re going to have hellish days sometimes, but I want everybody to be kind of a family. Not that we’re adversaries or anything, but it’s hard to reach them.
One other thing that’s been a big challenge is getting the right products. Because, at the end of the day, it all starts with what we’re bringing in the door, what we’re feeding people. It’s easy at a place like Bacch to call a farmer and be like, “Hey, I need 25 pounds of your nicest beets.” Here, I need like 425 pounds of those beets and that guy cannot supply them.
So, we’re using brokers to find beets from this farm and that farm and this farm and bring them all together. That’s how you meet your en masse volume of products. The code is not cracked, but it’s definitely getting there. We’re just chipping away at it.
I remember a game dinner with elk that you did during a concert last year. Are you going to try to incorporate different kinds of things like that into the menu more?
That kind of thing is meant for the clubs, like where we’re standing right now. And on the north end of the building, at the Courtside Club. Those menus change all the time. These are our higher-end spaces, so we can afford to do stuff like that there. We try to do not overly thematic but sort-of thematic dinners. We did do a wild game dinner, where we had wild boar and elk tenderloin. We kind of like to get a little bit crazy.
We want to balance it. We also have to offer game-day fare — wings and dogs and burgers — because people coming here want that stuff. But getting that interesting food out there is easy to do in this environment because you’ve got a captive audience.
What are you most excited for people to taste when they come to State Farm Arena?
The whole experience is important to me. Not just the food. So, when they come in on the concourse in what we used to call “concessions” and now we call “restaurants,” [patrons will notice] how dramatically different that is.
The place is so different.
I mean it’s blown out. It’s super open. You can see the bowl from a lot of different areas, whereas you couldn’t previously. It’s way more accessible. I don’t know if you’ve been here before, but there were some places you could enter and you couldn’t use your ticket on certain sides of the building, even though it wasn’t a private or premium space.
Now, the only place you cannot go if you just have a regular ticket is a club or a suite — and, obviously, the players’ hallway. But you can go anywhere, really. You can go to all the concourses. You can go all around the building. It’s really open and inviting.
I want [fans] to feel that. And I feel that situation mirrors the culture of Atlanta. It’s very open and inviting. It’s a mix of all types of people just having a good time and eating some good food.
Chef Rusty Hamlin knows a few things about being in the spotlight. For nearly a decade, the Louisiana native has served as the executive chef for Grammy-winning rock group Zac Brown Band. And in addition to that, Hamlin was also a finalist on season 13 of Food Network Star.
But no matter how many cameras he’s faced or mouths he’s fed (he also co-owns local dining institution Atkins Park), Hamlin still gets excited about new endeavors. So, it’s understandable that when Forbes Travel Guide chatted with him before the opening of Zac Brown’s Social Club, a sort of retro-bar-meets-restaurant inside the arena that anyone with a ticket can access, the talented toque was hyped to talk about it.
What does it feel like to finally have Atlanta taste the fruits of all your hard work?
It’s almost like I don’t have words that explain how excited [I am] for Zac, the band, our whole family. To be able to be here in our own backyard [is incredible]. We’re in the most amazing spot here in State Farm.
They did such an amazing job. The attention to detail that they’ve done here is what we’re all about. The food is detail-oriented: each [dish] being made fresh every day and cooked to order, which hasn’t been done a lot in the past, when you’re serving thousands of people. We’re honing that.
But all the fixtures, the tables, the chairs [are detailed, too]. We got chandeliers! What?! All of that was made and designed through Zac Brown Customs. It’s just amazing. We’re really, really excited to be here.
What makes your relationship with Zac work so well?
It started back in 2002. We were just really good friends. I think it was around a bonfire with a mason jar of “clear liquid.” It could have been water. We decided that, if he were to ever go out on tour and was able to be influential around the country, he wanted me to jump around and go along the same parallel lines and take care of people with food.
I’ve been out on tour with Zac Brown Band now for nine years, not only the eat-and-greets but the VIP things backstage is what I do. The reason why you see us hug is that we’re best friends, number one. He stood next to me at my wedding six months ago.
On the other side of things, it’s about the arts. We’re both artistic. He’s great as a performer, an amazing musician and songwriter. On the opposite side, I’m all about the plate and the flavor. When you eat something, you know that’s us. You know it’s going to be us because it’s full-flavored; it’s not overthought or complicated, but it’s good. That’s where you see the connection.
You mention “full flavored” and “not overthought” food. What are some other expectations fans should have with regards to dining here?
We have three different areas where we’re serving food — we have the Social Club, the Grill and the Fryer. Anything and everything that you’re looking for is probably here. That’s exactly what we wanted. We wanted this to be a destination in the arena.
Also, you could travel the world and follow in our footsteps of what we’ve learned over the years touring. I’ve got a Korean-style taco with collard green kimchi. So, everything is another flavor that’s mingled with our Southern roots. Not only that, but we’re doing flatbread. We’re doing a homemade hummus. We got a carne asada over there, dude!
On the other side is stables of what you really want — but elevated. For instance, on our chargrill, we’ve got the OMG Burger. It is a tradition that, on the last day of tour for the last nine years, I cook the OMG for the whole crew. That’s the only time I ever do it. I told Zac, we’re going to bring this here for the people. Everything has a meaning and a story behind it.
We have a shrimp po’ boy. I’m from N’awlins, ya heard me? This is my roots. We’re bringing in a BLT with crispy chicken thighs? C’mon, man!