Joel Pena, the new executive chef at Texas Motor Speedway, is no stranger to the world of sports.
He has fed fans at Super Bowl XLIII (the Steelers over the Cardinals in New Orleans in 2009), the Kentucky Derby (2003-06), the 2006 and 2011 NBA Finals, the 2008 NHL All-Star Game, and various PGA Tour events.
But there's something about auto racing, Pena says, that really gets his motor revving.
"I am still learning all about this sport," the El Salvador native says. "But I love the energy of racing and I love the emotion that NASCAR fans have. When I got my first taste of it, I knew I liked it."
Similarly, race enthusiasts at the Speedway Club during this weekend's races at TMS are sure to like what Pena has to offer once they taste his food.
He has only been here a few weeks, mind you, so he is only getting started making the menu his own. He has big plans for inventive and unique menu items during the next big race weekend at TMS.
We chatted with Pena, who spent the past two years at Atlanta Motor Speedway, about food, sports and tailgating.
You're living proof that going to a sports event doesn't have to mean limiting yourself to burgers, hot dogs and nachos. You can eat well at the racetrack if that's what you want, right?
Oh, yeah. There are a lot of different opportunities to enjoy yourself here. We have the traditional concessions or state fair-type food, but we also have in some areas some gluten-free items, and we have fine dining available for members of the Speedway Club and for fans watching the race in the suites. They have options from filet mignon to lobster to whatever they like.
Is there anything in particular that you recommend this weekend?
The Texas dog. When you look at it at first, it seems like such a simple thing. Then you taste it and it's unbelievable. It's our normal hot dog, but with smoked brisket also, on which we put our own barbecue sauce and top it with jalapeños. That blend of flavor, once it's in your mouth, it's like a party.
Word is that you're like a mad scientist in the kitchen, coming up with a variety of wild menu innovations that will be added soon to the menu. Can you reveal what some of these items are?
We are playing around with flavors right now to see what we can come up with. We are trying to do some chocolate popcorn. We are trying to do one with maybe bacon and some spices. I'm looking to make my own sausage. I have a lot of ideas. There wasn't time to do all the research we need for this race. But for the next one, I promise we are going to have a lot of good things.
There also will be talented amateur chefs out in the parking lot. Which impresses you more: the tailgating chef who has an eclectic menu or the one who does the basics exceptionally well?
I look for the guy who does the basics really, really, really well. Because for the most part, there's a lot of passion in what he does. And a lot of times, there are little secrets and family recipes that they know that allow them to get good flavors. So they don't have to go crazy.
It's like when you travel. There are restaurants that you never see on TV, that you never read about in magazines, but they are going strong for years and years, and it's because they are doing something basic but they're doing it good. That's the most important thing: Do it good.
Of the various sporting events you have been associated with to date, do you have a favorite sport or venue?
There are two places that kind of took my breath away. One was the Kentucky Derby, because it's so different, the amount of people, the way the people dress to go to this event, all the ladies with their special hats. The other place is Lambeau Field in Green Bay. The Green Bay Packers fans really impressed me with how much they love their team. The emotion there, it was incredible. But I also see that kind of passion in NASCAR fans, which is why I'm so excited to be here now.