CLINE: Coolray chef cooks up more than peanuts, Cracker Jacks

Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. Blake Stembridge is the executive chef for the kitchens at Coolray Stadium, home of the Gwinnett Braves.

Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. Blake Stembridge is the executive chef for the kitchens at Coolray Stadium, home of the Gwinnett Braves.

Blake Stembridge can't throw a knuckleball, but he makes a mean "Knucksie" sandwich. The executive chef's creation is the signature sandwich at Niekro's Sports Bar at Coolray Field, and just like the Gwinnett Braves players, Stembridge and his crew are getting loosened up for the season.

There was a dry run at Niekro's on Tuesday night, where Stembridge showed the cook staff how to make the tasty concoction in addition to going over the menu and how to run the operation in their own version of spring training.

For Stembridge it's just another day at the office doing a job most G-Braves fans probably don't know exists. As ballpark food progresses past hot dogs, hamburgers and a box of Cracker Jack, guys like Stembridge have the challenge of creating new delicacies for the fans.

The "Knucksie" -- named in honor of Atlanta Braves legend Phil Niekro -- is Stembridge's pride and joy. An open-faced sandwich with a corn muffin base, it's stacked high with barbecue pork, carmelized onions, pickles, cole slaw, two sauces and green onions.

"That's just a big mountain of goodness there," Stembridge said. "I think every chef dreams of coming up with a sandwich that takes off, for it to happen right away (in Gwinnett) is great."

How big of a hit is it? It got the call-up to the big leagues that all Gwinnett players are waiting for and will be available this season at Turner Field as well.

But that wasn't Stembridge's only success during the offseason. He also earned his Pro Chef II certification at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. He was tested not only for his cooking acumen but also in the financial and management parts of the position.

It was a grueling test, one that illustrates the diversity of his job with Aramark. Stembridge, 26, is proud of the accomplishment and used to the fact that people don't associate the words "chef" with "ballpark."

"We had a catering job this summer and I told the lady the different menus that we could prepare and she said: 'So you're a real chef?'" Stembridge said with a laugh. "But we have that even with employees who come in to interview. We have to tell them: 'This is not just ballpark food.'"

Formerly the chef at the 755 Club at Turner Field, Stembridge spends a bulk of his time during the season managing everything from the concession stands to the suites and the Home Plate Club located beneath the concourse. There will be new dishes to watch for this season, he said, ranging from chocolate chipotle ribs in the suites and black bean burgers at the concession stands to a specialized Southern concession stand that will feature a "meat and two veggies."

It's all part of Stembridge's goal to "take concession food to a little higher quality" and a reminder that when dining at Coolray Field fans need to keep their eyes on the plate.

E-mail Todd Cline at todd.cline@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Wednesdays.