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Sanford Center Executive Chef Elbert Smith cooks up a sizzling steak before a recent Bemidji State hockey game at the Sanford Center. The Chicago native started at the arena in May and is focused on making good food from scratch. Jack Hittinger | Bemidji Pioneer

Good food from scratch: Sanford Center executive chef dedicated to making a name for Bemidji cuisine

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Elbert Smith considers himself old-school. Stubborn, even. Name a menu item at the Sanford Center and it’s likely made completely from scratch, from the pizza dough to the salsa to the hamburgers.

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“I’m one of the oldest chefs that still likes to do a lot of things from scratch,” he said. “I’m stubborn a little bit.”

Smith, who was hired as Sanford Center executive chef in May 2012, is committed to bringing quality food to the Bemidji area. It’s a new horizon for the Chicago native, who’s been everywhere from Paris to Nova Scotia to Bozeman, Mont., to advance his favorite pastime.

“Most chefs like to change,” Smith said. “I saw this position available and thought it would be a good challenge for me to come in here, bring a lot of my creativity and ideas to this new facility and try to build a name for this town.”

‘Building a relationship’

Arena food – burgers, brats and pizzas – might not be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of fine dining or quality cuisine, but making good meals for masses of people makes Smith happy.

“I wanted to come in here and tweak the food to make it better, more presentable,” he said. “I want to give the people a better product instead of giving them one that’s cheap and not ours.”

Making the Sanford Center into a Bemidji-centric experience tops the priority list.

In addition to making nearly everything on site – Smith estimated that 90 percent of the ingredients are made from scratch – Smith has also worked to buy from as many local businesses as possible. For example, all the burgers, brats and other meats come from Downtown Meats in Bemidji.

“I want to build a relationship with a town and say, ‘Hey, we’re here for you,’” he said.

Smith and his small staff – just seven cooks – handle numerous Sanford Center events and cater private celebrations in the arena’s ballroom.

But Bemidji State hockey games – feeding anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 people on gameday – are what thrills him.

“What I do here, the amount of food, the qualities of people … very few chefs can do that,” he said. “We never know what to expect, and that’s the fun part.”

Before coming to Bemidji, Smith worked for four years as the executive chef at Minnesota State-Moorhead. Feeding a boatload of hungry college kids while simultaneously working under a shoestring budget prepared Smith for cooking under any stressful circumstances.

He also helped open the United Center in Chicago – home to the Bulls and Blackhawks – and was in charge of catering at Super Bowl XXX in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“That’s where my passion really started to grow — feeding lots of people,” he said. “Other chefs can do small restaurants; that’s something I can’t do. My specialty is large-volume events and feeding a lot of people. I know how to do the math, know how to do the portions, know how to prepare for it.”

Smith doesn’t have a specialty – he likes mixing and matching. Coming to Bemidji, he said, has given him an opportunity to do unique takes on American arena staples. He also enjoys cooking with seafood and area ingredients like walleye and wild rice.

For a recent chili cook-off he got his first taste of northern Minnesota, making a walleye white chili. He didn’t win the contest, but all 30 gallons he made were gone within a matter of hours.

“With Northern Minnesota cuisine, everybody knows walleye out here,” he said. “It’s wild rice and walleye. There’s so many different things you can make with them. I enjoy making new dishes with old ingredients.”

Passion for cooking

Although his work at the Sanford Center is a full-time job – 14 hours a day sometimes on hockey weekends – Smith never stops cooking. It’s a hard habit to break when you’ve been doing it for 30 years.

“Cooking is my hobby, not just my job,” he said. “I started when I was 9.

“The saying goes, you either hate it, or you don’t hate it, which means either you hate cooking, hate the long hours, hate working holidays, or you love it. And I love it, or else I wouldn’t be doing it.”

Working behind the scenes at a big arena rather than opening a trendy restaurant in a big city suits him just fine.

“Anyone can be an entertainer … but I don’t want to be an entertainer,” he said. “I want to be a person that makes good food.

“It’s not about people knowing who you are, it’s about the food.”

Smith says he’d like to give back to the Bemidji community with more special events to highlight local cuisine. He’s working to put together a rib fest in the summer and would like to pull together some local chefs for some fundraising events with which he’s involved.

“There’s a lot of good chefs and a lot of great talent in Bemidji,” he said, rattling off a few of his favorites, such as Tutto Bene, the Blue Ox and the Wild Hare.

“We just have to build the reputation of our food and our cuisine, let people know that we’re out here,” he said. “We’re not just a small town that plays hockey. We also have great restaurants here, great food and great people. It’s about the arts here.”

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Jack Hittinger
Jack Hittinger is the sports editor of the Bemidji Pioneer. He is also the Bemidji State beat writer. He hails from the Great State of Michigan. Read his Bemidji State blog at http://thebeaverblog.areavoices.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @Jackhitts.
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