The Lincoln restaurant where chef Trey Nelson works has been open only two weeks, yet here he is, on a rainy Tuesday morning, cooking at a downtown Omaha tailgate party.
He's working solo — and quickly — because at least 10 hungry LSU fans are waiting for a “Raspberry Beret,” a hand-pattied grilled burger topped with homemade raspberry jalapeńo jam, homemade peanut butter spiced with Jamaican jerk seasoning and sesame oil, hand-cured and candied bacon, raw red onion and shredded lettuce.
He's here to prepare one of the most popular items on the menu at his restaurant, LeadBelly, but he's also here because his friend Kelli Francis, an Omaha lawyer, runs a high-end tailgate party each year during the College World Series from her tricked-out mobile kitchen in a parking lot near TD Ameritrade Park.
Francis has turned the traditional hot-dog-and-beer gathering into a near-gourmet experience, with every kitchen gadget imaginable at her fingertips, a series of coolers precisely arranged to keep the food cool and a misting machine to help keep the crowd cool.
This year she has even invited a bona fide chef — Nelson — to cook.
She's part of an over-the-top tailgating trend that has been going strong since at least the 1990s. Magazines and websites such as Saveur and epicurious.com offer loads of recipes for people who want more than a brat and a bag of chips before the big game. Some companies will even cater your tailgate party.
On any given day during the series, Francis might serve 60 or more people — friends and strangers — from places as far away as Arizona and Louisiana.
One day she serves 36-hour barbecue ribs and pulled pork. Another day the menu is seafood, and the crowd eats oysters cooked in a portable fryer along with blackened shrimp, redfish, hush puppies and trout.
On the first day that LSU plays, there are hot, fresh beignets in the morning, along with pancakes and bacon. She starts other mornings with a hot breakfast casserole or a quiche she heats on the grill.
Five days of tailgating costs about $1,500, and Francis said she gets lots of help to create her ultimate CWS party. Guests chip in money or materials. LSU fans bring their own seafood and fryers. She hits big sales throughout the year for supplies like beer and napkins.
She has built her outdoor kitchen over about nine years, she said, and estimates that it would cost about $1,000 to create it from scratch today.
As you might imagine, her hospitality is something of a parking lot legend.
Police officers on bicycles stop by. Guys in Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority shirts line up for lunch. People who Francis has never met walk toward her tent from their own and sheepishly ask for a plate, and she cheerfully feeds them.
They all eat fall-off-the-bone-tender pork ribs and sandwiches piled high with tangy pulled pork. It takes Francis three days to make each dish at home.
“I ate these ribs with a fork, though I could eat them like a caveman, they're so good,” said Brad Parker, 29, from Baton Rouge, La., who comes to the tailgate each year with his mom, June Lavergne.
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