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Tailgating at Levi’s Stadium with Michael Mina and Thomas Keller

Liquid nitrogen butter pecan ice cream floats (with an edible chocolate straw) at Michael Mina’s tailgate at Levi’s Stadium.


When there’s the likes of lobster pot pie, freshly shucked Kusshi oysters, and made-to-order, liquid-nitrogen butter pecan ice cream being served, you know you’re not at your average tailgate.

When it’s chefs Michael Mina and Thomas Keller in charge of the food, you know you’re truly at no ordinary sports feast.

Such was the case yesterday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, when the San Francisco 49ers socked it to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Chef Michael Mina presiding over his exclusive tailgate at his Bourbon Steak & Pub.

Oh, he’s a fan alright.

Some young fans enjoying the food.

At every home game, Mina’s Bourbon Steak & Pub, located right at the stadium, is transformed into the ultimate upscale tailgating party imaginable. For added fun, Mina invites a different guest chef to headline with him. Typically, the guest chef has a connection to the opposing team’s city, such as when Chicago-native Christopher Kostow of the Restaurant at Meadowood was on hand for the Niners-Bears game. Or how when the Niners take on the Washington Redskins on Nov. 23, it’ll be Chef Jose Andres, who has several restaurants in the nation’s capitol.

So what does the French Laundry’s Keller have to do with Kansas City?

Uh, not much.

But since Keller’s schedule is always impossibly packed, he got free rein to choose any date.

When you’re Thomas Keller, you can do that.

Chef Thomas Keller was the guest chef at Sunday’s tailgate.

Keller’s featured lamb dish.

Yesterday, I was invited as a guest of Bourbon Steak to check out the tailgate. The game-day shindig is for members only. To be a member, ticket holders pony up a cool $5,000 each for the 10-game season.

Just what does that get you?

As much food and drink as you can put away — and there’s a lot of it — spread throughout this 17,000-square-foot restaurant that’s two and a quarter times larger than any other Mina establishment. What’s more, there are “Treats for Your Seats,” small cardboard to-go boxes filled with goodies such as TCHO chocolate, Popchips, gourmet nuts and Italian amareti cookies — in case you need a nosh during the game.

Stuffed Tolenas Ranch quail with malted molasses glaze.

Schmitz Ranch hay-smoked Kansas City strip steak with potato croquette.

Mina’s famed lobster pot pie.

For Mina, a diehard 49er fan who has had season tickets for 23 years and tailgated regularly at Candlestick, the space is “beyond a dream come true.”

For each home game, he bases the menu on local, seasonal produce plus the iconic food of the state from which the opposing team hails. For instance, cheesesteaks were front and center when the Philadelphia Eagles were in town and plenty of sweet corn when it was the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Mina lets each guest chef do a dish, too. Keller chose Elysian Fields leg of lamb with pole bean salad, tomato confit and thyme vinaigrette.

As an added bonus, Ryan Farr of 4505 Meats was also on hand to grill up spare ribs and cheddar jalapeno hot links — in an ode to Kansas City’s love of the Q.

Chef Ryan Farr of 4505 Meats manning the grill.

Farr’s ribs and hot links.

Keller was there to ostensibly represent the Chiefs. But of course, he admitted he was really rooting for the Niners.

He may not be a season ticket holder like Mina, but as a friend of 49ers Chairman John York, he gets to enjoy the privilege of attending a game a year in the luxury box. Keller also was a member of the committee to bring the Super Bowl to Levi’s Stadium in 2016. His contribution? He’ll be cooking dinner for all the NFL owners in January 2016. If that didn’t convince the powers that be to pick Santa Clara, I don’t know what would.

The splendid raw bar.

A whole pig cooking in an elaborate grill.

The Kansas City burnt end sandwich with pickles, coleslaw and white barbecue sauce.

The world-renowned, Michelin three-starred chef has a long love affair with sports, including baseball as a kid. In fact, when the French Laundry first opened, Keller started up a softball team. On the first day of play, the kitchen crew and front of the house staff showed up in cut-offs and faded T-shirts, only to watch Keller stroll onto the field in a bona fide uniform, carrying an equipment bag full of bats over his shoulder. He laughs that it was a relic from his old days as chef at Rakel in New York, where he also put together a softball team.

Liquid nitrogen butter pecan ice cream made into floats or scooped onto mini cones.

Gee, the Niners did kind of turn the Chiefs into mud, didn’t they?

Desserts galore.

Does Keller have a favorite 49ers player?

“You mean besides Montana?” Keller asked. “I’m a big fan of Frank Gore. He’s a running back. It’s a position where you can be a hero. Or more often than not, it’s one continual grind. You have to get out there, whether you have the ball or not. It requires a lot of persistence.”

The entrance to the stadium.

The action in the early minutes of the game.

Cheerleaders making the rounds at Bourbon Steak.

Both Mina and Keller were dressed in chef’s whites that day. Mina’s jacket, however, sported a snazzy Niners emblem on the back. But just before heading to his seat in the stadium, Mina swamped it out for his No. 35 Eric Reid jersey.

“A lot of the players come in for dinner after the game.,” says Mina, proudly about fortifying the team after their grueling afternoons. “But no, I never give them football advice. I only coach from my seat.”

And if the Niners win the Super Bowl this year?

Mina replied with a chuckle: “I will take credit. Absolutely!”

More: My Visit to the 49ers Training Camp Cafe