When Roadfood was simply a book, a businessman named Stephen Rushmore got in touch with us. Mr. Rushmore was a Roadfood fan, wealthy and well-connected. He asked us to meet with him in New York at a fancy hotel for breakfast. He was the classic handsome silver haired Master of the Universe type – a hospitality and real estate mogul. We realized what a big shot he was when Donald Trump left his own table in the hotel dining room to come over to Mr. Rushmore’s table and say hello.
Mr. Rushmore envisioned Roadfood having a bigger audience than it did as just a book. Visionary that he was, he suggested a Roadfood website that would be run by us and his son, Stephen Rushmore Jr., who had recently graduated from Cornell and would serve as webmaster.
In true Stern fashion we shrugged, said “ok,” then ordered eggs Benedict, never once mentioning a contract or any other sort of business formality.
And so the original Roadfood website was launched on a handshake and good will. It was primitive compared to what it is today, but this was in the early days of www.anything. We were happy to have an internet presence as a bragging point.
By nature or nurture, Stephen Jr. also had big business ideas. Like his father, he wanted to expand the Roadfood empire. This sounded fine to us. He had visions of Roadfood festivals taking place all over the country. He was a serious music lover and wanted to marry his love of food with his love of blues.
After working with Stephen a few years to get the Roadfood website up and running, the first of the big events he saw as the future began to materialize.
With his optimistic mindset, Stephen did not think small. He booked the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, New Jersey – a stadium with seating capacity of over 80,000 – for the kick-off inaugural Roadfood event.
If the Meadowlands (also called Giants Stadium) wasn’t hosting world class sports events or sell-out concerts, its vast capacity was still a draw. When Pope John Paul II visited the United States in the 1990s, no other venue was big enough to hold the devotees who came to hear him say mass. Even Jersey’s favorite homeboy Bruce Springsteen could not match that claim.
Despite the papal visit and other high-minded charity events, the Meadowlands still held a certain Jersey noir cache. If you were a Sopranos fan you understand where I am heading. This whole part of The Garden State seems covert and secretive, private and mysterious like Louisiana. You don’t expect to just walk in and know what’s going on. If you have the right family connections and have been here for a century, it might happen. Other than that, it is wise to take nothing at face value.
A popular urban legend purported that the remains of murdered Teamster Union boss Jimmy Hoffa (whose disappearance coincided with construction of the stadium) was buried under one of the end zones. Even when the stadium was demolished and no bones were found, the rumors continued.
The game plan was simple. Stephen had secured the venue. We picked 25 of our favorite Roadfood chefs from around the country and invited them to come and cook their best food for a paying public. To add celebrity power, Stephen contacted the most popular Food Network stars. They would come to give live demonstrations, sell books, and meet their fans (all for a fee).
It would be a glorious mix of fancy culinary wizardry and downhome people’s food. Michael and I would talk about Roadfood’s humble beginnings and serve as color commentators while chefs performed.
We were delighted with how many of our small-town Roadfood cooks wanted to participate. Most were willing to drive across the country, dragging their personal smokers, BBQ’s, and bushels full of local ingredients.
We spoke to Stephen by phone a few times a week. He would call us from Dubai, Singapore, Bangalore or any of the corporate offices of his “real” job. He talked to us about charts and projections and numbers, but he might have been speaking Cantonese or Swahili for our level of comprehension. Together, Michael and I have the business acumen of a dull hamster. But we had the good manners to know that when he paused we should put down the magazine or stop scratching the dog’s ears and be wildly enthusiastic.
Miraculously, it all seemed to be coming together. The Food Network stars liked the idea. Roadfood chefs and fans were over the moon. The Meadowlands was ours. As our former president liked to say “this job is shovel ready.”
However, by the end of the first Roadfood Festival, this jaunty slogan began to have cemetery significance. If you need to stage a world class disaster, where better then the biggest stage in the world? …CONTINUE ON TO PART 2