Feb. 4, 2010 -- Three days hence, in a smallish apartment in Manhattan, an epic battle is going to go down on the occasion of Super Bowl XLIV. And it won't just be Colts vs. Saints, Manning vs. Brees, the Circle City vs. the Big Easy.
At this party, the big showdown is going to be Man vs. Food. Ten men -- not even enough for a proper football team -- will face off with piles of chow the likes of which are unknown in the annals of tailgating.
To complicate matters, one guy, chef Josh Capon, will be playing for both sides. He'll be eating, but he'll also be doing what he does best: cooking up a feast for people close to his heart.
"I would say nine guys, I'm averaging about 400 wings," Capon said of his game day preparations. "And it's absurd 'cause every year, it's always, 'Capon, you made too many wings!' And then at the end of the day there are no wings left. And then we go into halftime. And halftime is the big blowout usually..."
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Chef Capon's life is defined by, and filled with, food. Mainly his passion finds its outlet at Lure, the New York seafood restaurant and raw bar where he has served as executive chef for the past five years. But so great is Capon's enthusiasm for feeding folks, it seems, that he uses every extracurricular excuse -- holidays, game day, a spate of barbecue weather -- to stage a banquet.
"Starting at 2 o'clock we have what we call the pre-game, we have the pre-game warm-ups," Capon said. "You have your traditional guacamole, salsa, tortilla chips, big jumbo shrimp cocktail, stone crabs -- maybe I'll bust out a little slab of bacon like Peter Luger out in Brooklyn. You know, we just kind of call them nibbles. We just get warmed up so to speak. And then when the game starts, you know, usually we'll bring out a little something."
Love of food is not a new feature in Capon's life. Both his parents were good cooks, he said. His first job, at 14, was in a restaurant -- in fact all his jobs have been in restaurants. He left his first college, University of Maryland, after two years to enroll in cooking school at Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island. While there he was selected as a culinary "extern" at Aureole, Charlie Palmer's acclaimed Manhattan restaurant, and upon graduation in 1994 he went to work for Palmer. Prior to his current gig as Lure's chef and de facto host, party planner and public face, Capon was executive chef for three years at Manhattan's swank SoHo restaurant Canteen.
But back to game day: "And then we go into halftime," Capon continued. "We'll obviously have the [New Orleans] stuff this year, the crawfish bread, the jambalaya... [and] burgers. You know, build-your-own burger bar. Um, ribs... there's a lot of stuff going on. One thing I always make sure of, especially ever since we cut the wives out -- because there is a little bit of a guilt factor because I love all my boys and I do love all their wives, and they know I do -- I always make sure to bring some to-go containers and rule No. 1 is I pack them up and everybody goes home with a to-go bag so the wives are happy the next day and they get something to eat."
'I Kind of Haven't Looked Back'
Capon, 37, grew up in Rockland County, N.Y., in a family whose dual emphasis on food and hosting lives on in his work. At Lure, he is known for circulating in the dining room, hailing regulars and chatting up customers who might well feel like regulars by night's end.
"My dad always had a saying, whenever you invite somebody over to your house, and you offer them drink, whether it's after work, you know happy hour, you're having a cocktail -- he would always say, 'You should give them a nibble,'" said Capon. "Which means you should never drink something without eating something because it's not healthy. If you work all day and you haven't eaten and you have a couple cocktails and you don't eat anything, the balance isn't there. So I always remember showing up at my dad's place, we would have a couple different 'nibbles.' They're really mezze, because he grew up with Greek parents. So there was always a couple little bites on the table. And I think I can of ran with that."
Capon's ascension from culinary student to Manhattan chef was indisputably quick. But his biggest professional jump may have come near the very beginning, when he was just a teenager with a job at the local diner.
"I remember when I was a busboy, and one morning the breakfast line cook didn't show up, and the owner was walking around this local diner freaking out," Capon said. "And I knew he was drunk from the night before because I was working the night before. I was only like 14 or 15 years old, and he didn't have a breakfast cook, and I kept looking at him, and I said, 'I can do it.' And he's looking at me like, 'You're a busboy, what are you talking about?' I said, 'I'm telling you, I've been watching the guy, I can do it. It's eggs, it's French toast, it's pancakes; I can do it.' So finally, after not much of a choice, he says, 'Alright, do it, get back there.' And not only did I do it, but I was making like little apple fritters for all the regular customers, and put a little powdered sugar and a slice of orange, and he was like, 'What's going on here?' And everybody really enjoyed it. And I think ever since then, I kind of haven't looked back."
A sense of ambition is clearly at work for Capon, who now has been running restaurants for the better part of his professional life. Just as important to his work, however, is a sense of enjoyment, he says.
"I realized that not only do I think I can be good at [cooking], I enjoy it; and that's something I always promised myself, even growing up in high school," he said. "I never saw myself sitting behind a desk with a suit and tie every morning. I just knew it wasn't me. I think the best question anybody ever asked me on a job interview was, 'How do you feel about working while the party is going on? How do you feel about working while everyone else is having a good time?' And I looked at him and I said, 'You know, that's the best question anybody's ever asked me.' And the truth is I always have a good time. I like to make sure everybody else is having a great time. Even when somebody comes to my house, I'm always like, 'Can I get you something to drink? Are you hungry?' It's just who I am, it's what I'm about. So it just comes very naturally, I think."
The chef's warmth of feeling about his work transfers to the people he works with.
"The truth is I absolutely love the people that I work with, I know almost everybody that walks through this door," said Capon. "I mean, people don't just come to Lure for a great meal; they come to Lure for a great time. Obviously the food has to exceed their expectations every time they come. They love to see me. I'm not a chef that really sticks in the kitchen too much; the chef used to be a back-of-the-house job, and now I think it's kind of evolved to front-of-the-house, back-of-the-house.
"I love shaking hands, I love greeting people -- 'Hey, how's everything doing?' I want to interact with the people. I used to hate working back there and not know what was going on in the front. If somebody's unhappy with a dish, or somebody's thrilled with a dish, I want to be there either way. And I think they come back; and a lot of times people come in, they meet me, and next thing they bring their friends in, they meet me, and then those friends bring their friends, and it's just been a constantly evolving progression. We're lucky because we're actually very busy and it's a tough time out there. ... I've been here for 10 years, but every night is new. It really turns into a party every night. It's like my own little dinner party."
'Where I Want to Be'
Capon's devotion to his staff, and his restaurant, has not always worked to the advantage of his personal life, he said. One episode stuck out.
"I remember in 2001, during New Year's Eve -- let's just say I was dating the wrong person at the time -- but I found it more important to be in the kitchen at 12 o'clock, when the clock struck, to have champagne and a couple beers with my guys, because to me it was the right place to be at the right time. And somebody else wasn't thrilled that I wasn't there at 12 o'clock to kiss them. You know, in hindsight I made the right move because I'm done with that particular person, but I think for me it just says who I am, and priorities I guess -- where I want to be at the time.
"It's tough ... I mean the restaurant business is tough you know, whether it's Valentine's Day or whether it's New Year's Eve, or you know, Thanksgiving is the one holiday that I refuse to work. Every year my boss tries to get me to open the restaurant up, 'Oh, come on, we'll be busy, it's Thanksgiving.' But no. It's a family holiday, my staff gets off, everybody leaves the day before with some turkey and some homemade cranberry sauce, and I'm going home to my sister's house in Jersey cooking for 60 people. That to me is what Thanksgiving is all about. I'm sure one day it will eventually happen that I'll have to work, but we'll see, we'll deal with that when that comes."
Next to Super Bowl Sunday, which Capon celebrates each year with "nine of my closest buddies," Thanksgiving stands out as a culinary landmark on Capon's calendar. It's a family affair, with Capon's two older sisters and his brother pitching in. And by the numbers, it rivals the historic feast.
"Our annual Thanksgiving party is up to about 75 people, which is really not normal," the chef said. "This past year at my sister's, we deep-fried seven turkeys, and 1,500 pieces of my famous chicken lollipops. We actually had seven deep-fryers lined up on the driveway when people showed up. The big deep-fryer kit that you get at Home Depot; last year we had three, this year we were up to seven."
Although he looks trim enough in his chef's whites, Capon freely admits to a gluttonous disposition.
"I definitely enjoy eating," Capon said. "I think if there was one wish that I could have in life, [it would be] to be able to eat with impunity, just be able to keep going and not have to worry about a damn thing. I could be 500 pounds tomorrow if somebody just said, 'Hey, go for it!' I'd be like, 'Let's go!' But it's hard, especially in this business, to keep a handle on it and that kind of stuff. You know, everything in moderation."
Everything, that is, except Game Day.
"You call me on Game Day, you don't say 'hello,'" said Capon. "You say 'Game Day,' because I will not respond to anything else. I have had an annual Super Bowl party, it probably started about 14 years ago. It's nine of my closest buddies and nobody else. And every year around the Super Bowl, I start avoiding phone calls because people want in. And truth be told, Game Day, the Super Bowl, it's not a party. It's not, 'Hey, let's all come over and hang out.' There's a game to be watched. And I live in an apartment in New York City, I don't have a ton of room, I don't have a huge couch -- there is limited seating sort of speak -- and again we're watching a game. We're not just hanging out, talking, and listening to music, and drinking beers and eating food. So it's a very tight crew. I would say about six years ago, we actually made a pretty big decision and cut the wives out because they just really got in the way.
"They didn't watch the game, they didn't care about the game, and not only am I feeding my boys, I've got to worry about them over there, you know, getting the Diet Cokes and 'Do you have any salad?' This is just all wrong. So seven years ago, we all got together, and it was a big decision, but we cut the wives out and we haven't looked back since. But it's been the same nine guys every year and they know it and I know it, and I don't mean to be rude or piss anybody off, but I always say one day if I live in a big house, I'll open up the floodgates. And if I've got TVs in every room and we'll put up a projector out back in the backyard or whatever it is. But for now I live in New York City, I live in an apartment, I've got a couch that seats six, we pull up a couple chairs and we rotate after every quarter, but it's a big day.
"We're just all gnawing on big turkey legs. Game Day is about the game. But Game Day is also about the food. This is what I do and my friends have always counted on me to eat. There's one thing they know they can count on me for and it's a good meal. We break it down though, it's pretty serious. Usually, depending on who's in the Bowl, you know this year we've got New Orleans and the Colts. We all love New Orleans, we're big Jazz Fest guys and we're down there every year and we have some friends from college that opened up some businesses down there, so we all love and support New Orleans. So obviously, we're all pulling for them. You know we always try to give a little nod to the team that we're rooting for, so this year being the Saints, we're going to have a little jambalaya. Crawfish bread is a big thing that we all love at Jazz Fest, so we're going to try to incorporate that. But then you obviously have got your staples that we count on every year."