At Super Bowl LIV, Dayanny De La Cruz Is the Woman in Charge

Chef Dayanny De La Cruz
Chef Dayanny De La Cruz Matthew Noel
How do you feed more than 25,000 people in the span of a few of hours? Ask Dayanny De La Cruz. The effervescent 47-year-old executive chef for Centerplate, the catering company at Hard Rock Stadium, at this very moment is in the midst of planning how to feed legions of rabid football fans before and when Super Bowl LIV kicks off Sunday, February 2.

The undertaking will require a staff of more than 2,500, including head chefs from arenas across the nation who are flying into town to ensure everything goes off without a hitch. The work will be split among seven arena kitchens and five to ten mobile kitchens, which will prep more than 20,000 pounds of shrimp, 2,700 Maine lobster tails, 8,000 pounds of short ribs, and more than 2,000 pounds of beef tenderloin. There are 10,000 hot dog buns on order, as well as 7,000 brioche buns from Boca Raton's Old School Bakery. Two Miami women-owned businesses — Pastry Is Art and LadyFingrs Popsicles — have been tapped to supply almost 5,000 cake pops and 1,000 mojito and guava-and-cheese paletas. These figures don't even reflect the hundreds of thousands of items offered at the regular concession stands. 

De La Cruz is responsible for every bit food sold at the stadium, which includes the slate of Miami favorites-turned-concessionaires such as Chef Creole, Versailles, Shula Burger, and Grown.

At the same time, she's in charge of the club level's multiple orgiastic smorgasbords that will dish out everything from Cuban sausage sandwiches to sushi, ceviches, empanadas, lobster tails, skirt steak, shrimp cocktail, barbecue pulled pork, lobster rolls, gourmet doughnuts, lamb skewers, Argentine asado, compressed watermelon and tuna salads, and fresh guacamole made with local avocados. There's also the stadium's 175 suites, which sell for millions of dollars and enjoy customized 23-item menus that will be rolled out before and during the big game in three waves.

Such is the challenge for De La Cruz. She was born in the Dominican Republic and worked in hotel administration before pursuing a lifelong passion for cooking and attending culinary school in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She found her way into the Hilton corporation in and around Chicago. In 2012, she relocated to Miami and became executive chef for the American Airlines Arena, just in time to see Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and LeBron James win back-to-back championships.

Yet what that team accomplished was nothing compared to what De La Cruz faced. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and underwent almost three months of chemotherapy, followed by surgery to remove everything radiation couldn't. Through it all, she missed no more than a handful of days at work.

"It made me feel like I still had a purpose, could still be useful," she says of continuing to work. "You create families in this kind of business, and that family, in addition to my husband and sons, is what kept me going."

She's been in remission for eight years, but she still takes each day one at a time, she says, and expects no light at the end of the tunnel. She just has to keep moving. Such a force of will probably helps when it comes time to feed thousands of boisterous, boozed-up fans.

The work begins in earnest a week before the big game, when teams of cooks start seasoning, rolling, and tying off 350 pork bellies and loins for seemingly endless trays of porchettas. They'll mash up mountains of yellow and green plantains as well as yuca for trifongo. Hundreds of pork butts will be seasoned and stored, destined to become the filling for who knows how many pulled pork sandwiches. Thousands of avocados will be delivered and stored until they're to be scooped out and transformed into a veritable swimming pool of guacamole.

Two days before the game is when the cooking really picks up.

"It'll look like a bomb went off in the middle of every kitchen," De La Cruz says. "The energy is intoxicating. It is such an amazing rush — it's beautiful."

By the time game day arrives, everything that needs to happen has been scheduled, planned, checked, and rechecked down to the very minute. It's part cooking and part military precision.

On game day, De La Cruz will arrive around 2:30 a.m. to walk through the all-inclusive club-level areas and individual suites to add her own touch of decoration, which could range from orchids to a towering vase filled with Meyer lemons. There's a brief moment to enjoy the empty space before the mayhem ensues. Cooks and sous-chefs begin arriving at 3 a.m. All of the cold food and serving dishes will have been staged the night before, and their main task will be to review the day's logistics. Nothing is left overlooked, from the hundreds of hot boxes that will help move the food from the kitchen up to the suite level, to the precise moment the pork shoulder needs to commence roasting.

"This doesn't happen without a lot of systems and an amazing team," De La Cruz says. "I can't do this alone. I can't be everywhere, and I have to trust my chefs, and that's what we work on throughout the year."

Once the cooking is at full speed, the kitchen becomes a de facto Amazon warehouse where the timing and route of each item to its final destination is of the utmost importance.

"The person who oversees all of that is the real MVP; otherwise we're just a bunch of cooks covered in food," she says.

As the game winds down, so too do the kitchens, which begin cleaning up and restocking the pantries. All of the leftovers will be donated to Food Rescue Miami, the local branch of the national nonprofit that connects drivers with unused food to help avoid waste and support local shelters such as Lotus House. Though the Super Bowl comes to South Florida only every so often, the stadium is a beehive of activity, and whether it's a concert, a soccer game, or another Miami Dolphins defeat, there's always a team toiling far below the seats to make the impossible possible. 
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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson