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Devilishly good food: Fill your game face at Prudential Center's high-end Acela Club
Executive chef William Miller treats fans to decadent cuisine during home games. Watch video below.
Acela Club Information
Vicki Hyman/The Star-Ledger
Two men are wolfing down mushroom- and spinach-stuffed beef tenderloin, smoked lamb lollipops and baked oysters with chorizo stuffing when mid-mouthful, they abruptly stand up and start cheering.
It's not every day that a chef gets to witness a standing ovation. Of course, it's not every day that the Devils score a goal, either.
These hockey fans weren't actually cheering the haute cuisine dished up by William Miller, the executive chef of the Prudential Center's Acela Club, the arena's 350-seat restaurant, but Miller has won plenty of fans for steering sports event cuisine into higher realms. Pork conserva with grilled polenta and green tomato agrodolce? Mussels and Azorean-style chorizo in saffron broth? The folks in the Brodeur jerseys have no complaints. Call it red tablecloth dining.
''When I was interviewing, I was like, 'Oh, I don't want to be a hot dog chef,''' Miller says. But Devils executives told him they were serious about elevating the level of dining. ''I have freedom to be creative here.''
Miller is a New Jersey native and Culinary Institute of America grad who spent most of his career with Hilton, including his first job in Short Hills and a four-year stint at a Washington D.C. Hilton, where he helped cater the White House Correspondents' Dinner and a number of inaugural balls.
For the last year, he has overseen the kitchen at the Acela Club, which is open to all ticket holders during Devils and Nets games, as well as the arena's three premium lounges and its luxury suites - thousands of a meals a night - plus catered events held at the arena throughout the week. The ledge seating, the part of the Acela Club that overlooks the rink, are among the best seats in the house.
The Acela Club features a buffet and a la carte dining, a bar, an extensive wine list, private dining rooms, and the coveted ledge seating overlooking the rink, where diners such as Henry Rosenblatt and his son, Jeffrey Latko, have just cleaned their plates and are enjoying glasses of white wine during the first period.
''You don't get this kind of food at sporting events,'' says Rosenblatt, a season ticket holder who lives in Ridgewood and often dines in the restaurant. ''If anything he's too creative, because I don't think people can appreciate what he's trying to do.''
Miller, who lives in Hillside with his wife and twin girls, actually works for Centerplate, a national food service and hospitality concessionaire that counts dozens of ballparks and arenas among its clients. The Rock's fine dining restaurant is pretty rare among Centerplate sports venues, but the company's clients are clamoring better fare - not only for the premium ticket holders, but for the folks in the nosebleed seats as well, says Bob Pascal, the senior vice president of marketing for Centerplate.
''We're just so much more interested and aware of the food we're eating from an ingredient standpoint, from the touch of the chef standpoint, from the presentation standpoint,'' Pascal says. ''You're seeing a shift in the quality of the service, of the food, of the presentation.''
The New Meadowlands Stadium has the swanky Commissioner's Club, where celebrity chefs such as David Burke (David Burke Fromagerie in Rumson, David Burke Townhouse in New York) and Matt Hoyle (Nobu in New York) have done guest stints, but it's members only. Ditto Yankee Stadium, which offers the Legends Culinary Series for its luxury box holders: grub from molecular gastronomist Wylie Dufresne, ''Iron Chef'' Masaharu Morimoto, and a host of previous ''Iron Chef'' and ''Top Chef'' contenders.
But Devils executives say they wanted to heighten the experience for those with, shall we say, shallower pockets (though dinner for two at the Acela Club is likely to set you back at least $100). Owner Jeff Vanderbeek praised Miller's menus for making the fan experience ''second to none.''
On game days, the kitchen staff comes in around 9 or 10 a.m. to process deliveries and start prep work. Miller loves to barbecue, and you can often find him feeding hickory into his smoker outside the arena, just behind a guard shack, for pulled pork, beef brisket, huge ribs playfully called dinosaur bones.
Tonight, there's a version of cioppino, a tomato-rich seafood stew on the menu, and the smell of cooking garlic wafting through the kitchen is enough to knock you flat on your back. One of the cooks checks on the green beans cooking in the Swiss braiser - picture a saute pan so large he needs an oar to stir the contents - while another cook batters enormous mushrooms and drops them in the sizzling 24-gallon fryer. Miller often smokes his own meat on game days.
Miller has an open door policy with his staff of 40 - sous-chef Rebecca Lopez dropped by earlier this evening to offer up a taste of her jambalaya - and challenges them to think more creatively. When he took over, the go-to delicacies were cold Italian meat platters, a safe bet in North Jersey. ''Who wants to eat cold food in the middle of dinner?'' he says.
They haven't forsaken prosciutto, pepperoni and ricotta salata, but now the sliced meats cozy up to a platter of fried alligator po boys. Yes, alligator. On other nights, hungry fans may find garlic-roasted duck breast, lamb and blue cheese sausage, and flat iron beef and Maytag blue cheese crostini. There's often a Thai-influenced dish on the menu, such as the spicy Thai-style shrimp salad, influenced by Miller's wife, who is from Thailand.
The attention very quickly switches from the plate to the rink when there's action on the ice, but Miller doesn't mind. ''When the game starts, it starts rocking in here,'' he says. ''You can feel the energy in this place. It's intoxicating.''