Broccoli for Bruno Mars and kale for Katy Perry

How Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Arena sources local food for concerts and sporting events.

Executive Chef Chris Simpson’s job can be quite challenging, with each new week bringing a wide range of events from concerts and sporting events to business conferences and catered dinners. As Executive Head Chef of the Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich., he must oversee the preparation of a wide variety of menu options - from hot dogs and French fries for up to 12,000 celebrating hockey fans to grilled salmon, vegan fare and chocolate tortes for a host of particular rock stars before they take the stage. The one theme that is common in all of his offerings is locally grown, produced and sourced foods.

Luckily for Simpson, West Michigan is home to one of the more agriculturally diverse environments in the nation. He can source a wide variety of products directly from local food processors, farmers and distributors without difficulty. Except for the “local oranges, pineapple and limes” that sometimes are listed on the catering riders submitted by tours.

“It always makes my eyes roll,” says Simpson, “but these acts are national or international tours and all venues get the same riders. I understand that the riders are for many parts of the country.”

“We try to make the food and experience in Grand Rapids special for these hard-working crews,” says Simpson. “We smoke our BBQ pork and beef brisket, because of the volume we source local through Gordon Food Service, a national food distributor headquartered in Grand Rapids. All of the 200,000 plus hot dogs are served during each Grand Rapids Griffins hockey season are produced locally at Kent Quality Meats also based in Grand Rapids.

Eggs, cheese, fruits, vegetables as well as some meats are sourced through West Michigan Farmlink. Two of the farms that help Simpson put local on the table are: Tim Sharer of Vertical Paradise and the Kaeb brothers of Heidi’s Farmstand and Bakery in Lowell.

“I’ve learned so much about farming from those two, they have helped me understand how important the connection between chef and farmer is,” says Simpson.

Simpson finds that the most requests on menus are for “organic, natural and local when possible” from the tours that come to the Arena. “I think when they say organic, which is the most requested characteristic these days, they think it is healthier. But what could be healthier than a salad that was picked within hours of it being served? Most stars are very health-conscious and some come with their own nutritionists.”

High energy singers and dancers like Britney Spears and Taylor Swift, for example, are on a low-calorie diet and request items like grilled salmon and a light salad for dinner in their dressing rooms before their shows.

On the other hand, some stars have a sweet tooth. “I think chocolate was mentioned three or four times in the catering rider for Elton John,” says Simpson. He ordered chocolate truffles and a flourless torte chocolate torte from a local pastry chef for Sir Elton. Simpson says he remembers Elton John flew in, did the show at the Van Andel Arena, flew out and was back home in Las Vegas before the crew could get the show broken down and loaded on the trucks.

Simpson says most tour groups are eager to give feedback about the food – both good and bad. He remembers that Kid Rock and Bob Segar, both Michigan natives, came back in the kitchen to compliment the staff on a job well done. “That was really cool of them,” says Simpson who has been cooking for over twenty years, the past four as Executive Chef of the Van Andel Arena.

The Community Food System Workgroup from Michigan State University Extension is working in several locations throughout the state to increase local food purchasing among schools, colleges, hospitals, restaurants and individual consumers. MSU Extension in Grand Rapids has been partnering with West Michigan Farmlink, area farmers and food producers to grow the local food system here. Van Andel Arena is just one of the several large food service venues in our community that is making a commitment to purchasing local foods on a regular basis.

2014 will bring some major concerts to the Van Andel Arena, including: Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, Motley Crüe and Alice Cooper. It will be exciting to learn from Chef Chris Simpson what locally-produced food these stars are served. Maybe it will be broccoli for Bruno and kale for Katy. 

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