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Dinner for 18,000 Planning a menu to feed a throng of hungry hockey fans is just another day the office for HSBC Arena's executive chef

The fans cheer at Sabres games. They yell, they scream.

All this activity works up an appetite, and one thing is for sure: Sabres fans eat.

Oh boy do they eat!

No one would know that better than Tab Daulton, top chef at HSBC Arena. Daulton's culinary responsibilities include supervision of the concession stands; the Harbour Club 100 -- which includes a pregame buffet served to members and ticket holders on the 100 level; the Harbour Club 200; and the meals served in the arena's 78 luxury suites.

So when the Arena is sold out, which is not exactly uncommon these days, there's a potential of feeding some 18,000 people, all within about a two-hour period. This can be almost as difficult as scoring a shorthanded goal.

Still, Daulton, 49, a certified executive chef and former president of the local unit of the American Culinary Federation, seems to thrive on the activity -- even if he's usually too busy to watch the game. During the eight years he's been working at the Arena he's supervised plenty of changes in the menu.

"When I first came here," Daulton says, "someone joked that HSBC stood for Hot Sauce and Blue Cheese." And maybe it still does, in a way.

Daulton says beef is still the biggest seller in the many arenas, and that Buffalo remains a chicken wing and chicken finger town. But customers know more, and expect more, than they once did, he says.

Cooks in the busy main kitchen at HSBC Arena bake their own bread, and continue to experiment with a new gelato machine. Daulton has three sous chefs, as well as a special suite chef on his staff.

"Hectic" is the word to describe what goes on before a game begins. Counting other cooks, the servers and the utility people, at least 45 people may be buzzing around.

>Feeding the players

Daulton feeds more than just fans. He serves breakfast to the Sabres players when they practice at the Arena. On the menu: muffins, bagels, toast, fresh fruit, oatmeal (instant during the regular season, out of a chafing dish, during playoffs.)

No coffee is served, by order of strength and conditioning coach Doug McKenney, who says caffeine acts as a diuretic. "We try to get as much fluid as we can and stay rehydrated with juices, water and Gatorade," says McKenney, who praises Daulton. "The teams love him and he fits food in just the way we want it," he says.

Daulton seldom feeds the team before a game, since each Sabre follows his own routine. But after the game he may put out a meal with protein, such as chicken, fish or meat.

>Playoff menu

For fans, the Harbour Club buffet to be served before Thursday's first playoff game will feature Rabbit Terrine, Sesame Noodle Salad and Wild Rice Salad in addition to the more expected Strip Loin Medallions, Herb Roasted Chicken and Pasta Bolognese. On the 200 level, sushi is offered.

And even the concessions have changed a bit. Mexican food is available, and all manner of deli sandwiches are offered in a stand called Pile High.

Daulton has even offered on occasion the likes of Duck Galantine as a special.

"People actually go for these things," he insists. But he takes a practical stance, also, saying it takes time for people to catch on.

"We'll put things on as a special for two or three games the first year and bring them back a second year. And then, if they don't do well we drop them."

Born, raised and trained in Indiana, Daulton, who now lives in Hamburg, has worked in restaurants since he was 15 years old. He worked for Delaware North Company's Sportservice for 21 years; before coming to Buffalo he worked at thoroughbred race tracks in Cleveland, Memphis and Kentucky.

As befits a certified executive chef, Daulton still likes to do some training. He conducts tastings of organic greens, different salts and olive oils for his staff. He goes out into into the community -- on Sunday he is cooking Rabbit and Gnocchi at the ACF Chefs Brunch at Erie Community College.

On game days in the regular season, Daulton comes in at 8 in the morning and doesn't leave until 10 or 11 at night. Then there are banquets, catering, the activities of the Buffalo Bandits and concerts.

>Room for dessert

Daulton says fans eat more if the team is winning. And one of the things they eat more of is dessert.

Especially popular is the Sabre Chocolate Hockey Puck -- a chocolate cup filled with mousse and covered with a lid boasting the Sabre logo. At least 200 are sold in the restaurants every night.

The pucks are cute and they are little -- about 1,000 of them would fit inside the Stanley Cup, I'd guess. Speaking of which, will HSBC Arena offer special celebratory food if the Sabres get to the final round? Daulton's not talking.

Playoff scheduling requires total flexibility, so planning ahead isn't always possible, he says. True enough.

No question, though, that whatever happens to the team, no one in the Arena will go hungry.


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