July 13, 2008
The first half of the season has been a yawn, and some of the biggest sluggers in the lineup have holes in their bats. But one time-tested veteran swings for the fences and hits a home run every night at Dodger Stadium.
Chef Dave Pearson.
Like the Dodgers, Pearson got his start in New York. The youngest of 10 kids grew up sneaking into Ebbets Field to see Jackie Robinson and Gil Hodges, and when he couldn't squeeze under the outfield fence, he listened to a guy named Vin Scully call those Brooklyn Dodger games on radio.
Pearson later moved west, just before the Dodgers did, and now he serves Scully dinner every night in the Dodger Stadium press box.
"He spoils us in every way possible," Scully said as Pearson, 69, laid down a minor work of art: an empanada and taquito appetizer with a sprinkling of chives for color.
Announcers Rick Monday and Charlie Steiner belly up to the same white-linen-covered table every night with Scully, always in the same exact chairs. They call their private corner of the press box Dave's Diner, and they guarantee there's not a feast this classy anywhere else in major league baseball.
But who needs to hear from those guys when the Dodgers have a Hall of Fame authority on food -- former manager Tommy Lasorda.
On Thursday, just after chomping on a burrito followed by a ham and Swiss sandwich the size of a catcher's mitt, Lasorda was in his office, scraping the bottom of a bowl of ice cream. The office, Lasorda's personal museum and sanctuary, is a beehive of baseball photos and memorabilia. It's also got images of Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II and Frank Sinatra.
"The holy trinity," I said.
Lasorda did not respond. His thoughts and energy were focused on the ice cream as he tunneled for the last drops of mint chocolate chip. Watching him work, I suspected his brief stint as a pitch man for Slim Fast had to be a worse form of torture than waterboarding.
When he was sated, Lasorda launched into a sermon on the secret of good pasta -- it ain't the noodle, it's the sauce. That's what makes Pearson's lasagna a religious experience, in Lasorda's not-so-humble opinion.
As for meatballs, there are only three in the history of the world worth mentioning, according to Tommy: his mother's, the ones he wolfed down at Rao's in New York, and Dave Pearson's.
"I eat it," he said of Pearson's food, "I love it, I take some of it home with me. That's the gospel truth."
As I made the sign of the cross, Lasorda told me about the time he was on a New York TV show and they asked him what one person in the world he'd take with him into a foxhole, should the need ever arise.
"I swear to God, I said, 'Dave the chef at Dodger Stadium.' "
The subject of all this adoration is a man of genuine humility. Pearson was laboring over a boiling vat of fried chicken, just a few hours before game time, when I asked how he was doing.
"Fantastic," he said with his grand-slam smile. "Same as every other day."
Are there any secret ingredients in the sauce, the meatballs or anything else? Nothing special, Pearson said. Just good fresh food, prepared with love. And don't forget the garlic.
Pearson's take on life is the very definition of the phrase "a small garden, well-kept." It prides him, he said, to work hard for people who appreciate what he does, and as an added bonus, he's gotten to know Dodgers Don Drysdale, Steve Garvey, Reggie Smith and dozens of others.
At his home in Sherman Oaks, Pearson keeps a souvenir case filled with baseballs signed by Willie Mays and other legends, and Lasorda once presented him with a Dodger jacket he cherishes.
But Chef Dave admires sultans of song as well as sultans of swat.
"You want to see my pride and joy?" he asked.
The white-hatted Pearson went into a satchel under his prep counter and pulled out a program from the 1994 Dodger Stadium concert by the Three Tenors -- Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras.
"Did you meet them?" I asked.
"No. But I got to cook for them."
Pearson first worked at Dodger Stadium part time in the '60s, after the team moved to the Ravine from the Coliseum. In 1970, he gave up a job at an East L.A. restaurant to go full time with the Dodgers of Walter Alston, Don Sutton and Maury Wills.
Over the years Pearson has boiled Dodger dogs for the masses, moved up to cooking gourmet for the high rollers in the Stadium Club and, about a decade ago, moved into the press box. Formally, he works for Levy Restaurants, which contracts with the team.
So how many games has Pearson missed in more than 40 years?
"One," he said regretfully, and it broke his heart.
What happened? I asked.
Pearson lost a wife and a son, remarried 3 1/2 years ago and loves traveling with his wife to France, Greece, Scotland and Ireland, among other places. There's no holiday, though, during the off-season or when the Dodgers are on the road, when Pearson cooks for Dodger staff.
On Thursday, just before the Dodgers blew a chance to hit the .500 mark with a frustrating loss to the Florida Marlins, Pearson dished out fried chicken and lasagna to dozens of grazers in the press box, many of whom asked him to keep it coming as they piled their plates high.
Meanwhile, in the private Dave's Diner, Lasorda and others took their places and awaited Pearson's offerings. Lasorda had given me a bottle of his very own Lasorda Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, which he autographed. "One sip," it says on the bottle, "and I am sure you will agree. It's a . . . Home Run!"
Pearson popped the cork and I poured Lasorda a glass. It had been three hours since he finished his ice cream -- an eternity, in other words -- and Pearson was now bringing ribs, mashed potatoes and gravy with tender young vegetables, to be followed by lasagna, if not a trip to Centinela Hospital.
Lasorda dug in like it was the end of Lent.
Right around 5:30, the man Pearson listened to on the radio more than half a century ago took his place and prepared to partake.
"Lookit here, lookit here," Scully said in radio singsong as Pearson served him dinner. "You've done it again."
And Lasorda, with the lasagna?
"Outstanding," said the skipper, and once again, Dave Pearson left Dodger Stadium with a smile on his face.
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