It’s the scent that stops them.
All work on a busy Monday morning at one end of Hard Rock Stadium seems to pause when one of three large meat smokers beneath the spiral walkways on the southeast side pops opens.
A puff redolent of the Fourth of July billows like barbecued wonderment as row after row of pork shoulders rotate in a slow rotisserie, a mesmerizing dance of deliciousness. Even the grounds crew, rushing around to prepare the field for back-to-back University of Miami and Miami Dolphins games this weekend, has to stop to close their eyes and take a deep whiff.
“Around 11:30 when you start to get hungry, it makes it hard to focus,” joked Mateo Francisco, one of the stadium groundskeepers, frozen in his golf cart.
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That scent isn’t the Dolphins getting smoked. Nearly 5,000 pounds of pork shoulder is slow-cooked for eight to 12 hours right on site at the stadium for every home game. It’s enough to feed more than 15,000 of the fans who will walk through the gates for each of this weekend’s back-to-back games.
Whatever tailgating will be happening in the parking lot in the hours before, it’s no match for the herculean effort led by Marc Spooner, who boasts one of the most ambitious job titles in cuisine: executive chef for Hard Rock Stadium.
“It’s like the most intense tailgate,” said Spooner, who technically works for Centerplate, an international company that provides dining at stadiums around the world.
A barbecue experiment started here, in 2008, with 12 pork shoulders that eventually launched an entire brand, Everglades BBQ, now at sporting venues across the country.
“Barbecue is as American as apple pie these days,” said Spooner, a Lakeland native.
Despite the enormous task, delicious barbecue begins with a host of tiny details. Just as the Dolphins are getting back to work on a Monday morning after game day, so are Spooner and his staff back at work.
In the main kitchen below the stadium, a sterling space of white walls and stainless steel appliances and counters, cooks unwrap hundreds of pork shoulders shipped fresh to the stadium that morning.
They spread them out over four stainless steel tables and dry rub them with an Everglades BBQ mix of spices and rest them overnight.
The staff rolls three stainless-steel smokers on casters, enough to hold 1,600 pounds of meat, into the corridor just outside the stadium and load them up with 200 pork butts. They will do this three or four more times in the first three days of the week, depending on how large a crowd they’re expecting. For UM-Florida State and the Dolphins last weekend, it meant full capacity — perhaps more than 6,000 pounds of meat.
They cook it low and slow — smoked for up to 12 hours at 225 degrees — with hickory wood pellets until the southeast end of the stadium smells like a campfire. The meat is cooled and wrapped in foil until getting a warmup two hours before the game. The meat remains whole until it’s pulled off the shoulder for each order.
“It’s so fun because this is classic old-world cooking,” Spooner says as he pulls an entire pork butt in a cast iron skillet from the oven and dresses it with red chili pepper rings.
Spooner pulls the pork with tongs, the tell-tale rosy smoke ring beneath burnt ends falling apart with barely a tug. He licks his lips and has to swallow as his mouth waters.
“That’s what I’m talking about, right there,” he says as he piles tender chunks of pork atop a bun, tops it with onions, bread-and-butter pickles, and a zigzag of Everglades barbecue sauce.
This is more than a job for Spooner. Working in commercial kitchens since he was 18, he went back to school at 31 to get a degree from the Culinary Institute of America to hone his craft. He was a contestant on one of the early episodes of Food Network’s “Chopped,” which was filming near his Manhattan apartment, and he won the $10,000 prize. (Part of it went toward a new commuter bicycle.)
At the stadium, his creative flourishes reveal themselves with the luxury-box crowds. There, he makes everything from beer-can chicken to smoked salmon and wahoo, Italian rope sausage, chorizo, andouille sausage, “whatever I’m inspired to do that week,” he said.
“We have a lot more freedom to do ‘cheffier,’ premium things,” he said.
What most of the crowds will judge him on, though, is the pulled pork, which goes into sandwiches and nachos and is among the stadium’s best-selling food.
“We’re pretty damn proud of this,” he said. “We still sell plenty of hot dogs and chicken wings, but I want people to know what we can do.”
They can smell it a mile away.