BY MATT LaWELL
PORT CHARLOTTE, Florida | Not long after Corey Brandt moved his young family across the country from Washington to Florida, the former chef developed what he refers to as a Wow Item for his new employer, the Charlotte Stone Crabs. He started with a basic hot dog, all beef, 10 inches long, and dropped it in a bun delivered fresh every morning to Charlotte Sports Park from a local Italian bakery. He piped the dog with four strips of bacon, then slathered it in pulled pork from North Carolina and topped it all with a mess of onion straws. Called the whole thing The Stoney Dog.
Brandt just never bothered to test his new concoction.
“I know all the ingredients taste good,” he says.
Brandt is the new director of food and beverage and operations for the Stone Crabs, one of three minor league teams owned and operated by Ripken Baseball and one of the top draws in the Florida State League. He wears a short beard and he smiles a lot and he’s tall enough to look most players right in the eyes. Especially when he wears white, he looks more like a chef, which is what he used to be, or a restaurant owner, which is what he wants to be a couple decades from now.
“I love minor league baseball. Always have. You remember in your high school yearbook, ‘Where are you going to be in 10 years?’ My answer was ‘Owner of a minor league baseball team.’” — Corey Brandt
He looks nothing like the middle child he was back in the 1980s, when he was busy blowing up the family microwave.
“He always seemed to be mixing something,” says his mother, Fran Brandt. “My mother was a great cook, and I don’t know if it came from her, but he always just liked to cook and put things together.” Like layers and layers of cake, or different flavors of soda, or all of his Easter candy — melted together in the thought the it might taste better as one giant clump of chocolate and cream and jelly. At least one time, he slathered honey and marshmallows between graham crackers in a metal pan, then warmed it in the microwave. That ended poorly.
Brandt maintained his interest in the culinary arts, however rudimentary they might have been back then, but other pursuits pulled him away for a while. Like baseball. He played for a high school team back in Connecticut, a southpaw pitcher and a first baseman. He received no scholarship offers, never even mailed out applications to any colleges, and had no real idea about what to do with the rest of his life after graduation. Fran called him home one day and asked him about his plans. He had none. He decided to call a Coast Guard recruiter. “Two weeks later,” he says, “I was in boot camp.”
And that was where his formal culinary career started. During his years with the Coast Guard out in Petaluma, California, Brandt learned about what flavors work together, how to build main courses and whole meals, how to become a chef. He studied and practiced at the branch’s culinary school, dishing out just about everything other than slop on a tray. On Fridays, he served up lobster, crab legs, filet mignon. “They really teach you everything,” he says. He followed that with classes at the Culinary Institute of America. He was on his way.
Brandt took a circuitous route into baseball. He moved back to Connecticut, worked in kitchens there for a stretch, then landed with the old New Haven Ravens, a Double-A Eastern League team. He wanted to buy season tickets. He wound up hired as their director of food and beverage. In 2001, still in his early 20s, he went back west, this time to Tacoma, Washington, to work for the Rainiers. He worked six years and dreamed up some ridiculous items — including the Cheney 2x4 Burger, four pounds of hamburgers and cups of blue cheese coleslaw stacked on a loaf of ciabatta bread and sold for $35 — before a move to the Seattle Seahawks. The Rainiers lured him back with the promise he could help design plans for the renovation of their home, Cheney Stadium. After they all tired of the cold Northwest rain, he moved his wife, Stephanie, and their kids, Mattingly and Jack, to Port Charlotte last offseason.
And now here he is, with a small staff of eight to 10 during the week and about twice that during the weekends, with not nearly enough equipment in the stadium, with lots of authority and ideas, and the ability to pull off everything he wants.
“I love minor league baseball,” he says. “Always have. You remember in your high school yearbook, ‘Where are you going to be in 10 years?’ My answer was ‘Owner of a minor league baseball team.’ I read an article in Reader’s Digest when I was in high school about how you could buy a minor league baseball team for a million bucks at the time.”
There are no ownership plans right now — for a baseball team or a restaurant — but Brandt is still young enough to branch out from overhauled stadium food to any sort of cuisine. He has plans to utilize local seafood and fruit next year, ideas that sound incredible for spring training fare, let alone the minors. But The Stoney Dog is his current masterpiece. His current general manager, Jim Pfander, who wanted to hire Brandt two years ago in Akron, described it as genius. “This guy,” Pfander remembers thinking after he interviewed Brandt in 2010, “is one of the best food and beverage guys I’ve ever talked with.”
Until Friday night, Brandt had never sampled The Stoney. When he finally did, he described it as matching his expectations. The hot dog crunched, the bread felt and tasted fresh, the bacon and pulled pork — he loves North Carolina pulled pork — were delicious. “The onions were a little overdone,” he says.
The next batch needs to be better. There are always more concoctions to build.
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