Gourmet grub makes her the CWS tailgate hostess with the mostest - Omaha.com
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Kelli Francis and Trey Nelson get ready to prepare his “Raspberry Beret” burgers Tuesday outside the ballpark. Francis, an Omaha attorney, enlisted Nelson, a Lincoln chef, to help feed friends and strangers from near and far out of her tricked-out kitchen in a parking lot.(CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD)
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Trey Nelson adds peanut butter spiced with Jamaican jerk and sesame oil for his “Raspberry Beret" burgers.(CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD)
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Trey Nelson spreads raspberry jalapeńo jam on a bun for his “Raspberry Beret” burger.(CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD)
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Kelli Francis(CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD)
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Kelli Francis makes french toast.


Gourmet grub makes her the CWS tailgate hostess with the mostest
By Sarah Baker Hansen / World-Herald staff writer


The Lincoln restaurant where chef Trey Nelson works has been open only two weeks, yet here he is, on a rainy Tuesday morning, cooking at a downtown Omaha tailgate party.

He's working solo — and quickly — because at least 10 hungry LSU fans are waiting for a “Raspberry Beret,” a hand-pattied grilled burger topped with homemade raspberry jalapeńo jam, homemade peanut butter spiced with Jamaican jerk seasoning and sesame oil, hand-cured and candied bacon, raw red onion and shredded lettuce.

He's here to prepare one of the most popular items on the menu at his restaurant, LeadBelly, but he's also here because his friend Kelli Francis, an Omaha lawyer, runs a high-end tailgate party each year during the College World Series from her tricked-out mobile kitchen in a parking lot near TD Ameritrade Park.

Francis has turned the traditional hot-dog-and-beer gathering into a near-gourmet experience, with every kitchen gadget imaginable at her fingertips, a series of coolers precisely arranged to keep the food cool and a misting machine to help keep the crowd cool.

This year she has even invited a bona fide chef — Nelson — to cook.

She's part of an over-the-top tailgating trend that has been going strong since at least the 1990s. Magazines and websites such as Saveur and epicurious.com offer loads of recipes for people who want more than a brat and a bag of chips before the big game. Some companies will even cater your tailgate party.

On any given day during the series, Francis might serve 60 or more people — friends and strangers — from places as far away as Arizona and Louisiana.

One day she serves 36-hour barbecue ribs and pulled pork. Another day the menu is seafood, and the crowd eats oysters cooked in a portable fryer along with blackened shrimp, redfish, hush puppies and trout.

On the first day that LSU plays, there are hot, fresh beignets in the morning, along with pancakes and bacon. She starts other mornings with a hot breakfast casserole or a quiche she heats on the grill.

Five days of tailgating costs about $1,500, and Francis said she gets lots of help to create her ultimate CWS party. Guests chip in money or materials. LSU fans bring their own seafood and fryers. She hits big sales throughout the year for supplies like beer and napkins.

She has built her outdoor kitchen over about nine years, she said, and estimates that it would cost about $1,000 to create it from scratch today.

As you might imagine, her hospitality is something of a parking lot legend.

Police officers on bicycles stop by. Guys in Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority shirts line up for lunch. People who Francis has never met walk toward her tent from their own and sheepishly ask for a plate, and she cheerfully feeds them.

They all eat fall-off-the-bone-tender pork ribs and sandwiches piled high with tangy pulled pork. It takes Francis three days to make each dish at home.

“I ate these ribs with a fork, though I could eat them like a caveman, they're so good,” said Brad Parker, 29, from Baton Rouge, La., who comes to the tailgate each year with his mom, June Lavergne.

MORE CWS COVERAGE
If it has to do with the College World Series, we're on it. Check out our CWS historical database, historical photos and our complete event coverage.

Francis brings all the food in coolers to her main tent, along with two tables to serve the food, chairs, the grill, a set of drawers full of cooking tools and another tall side table, draped in purple, which she sets up to give people a place to hang out that isn't right next to her kitchen. Songs blast from a small iPod dock: “Centerfield” by John Fogerty and “Africa” by Toto among them.

Cindy Francis helps with the tailgate party — Kelli Francis says her sister is “the entertainment.”

To make the day's lunch, Francis rubs the meat with a secret blend of spices and then, on her mobile grill, douses the ribs in a blend of three kinds of barbecue sauce. She cooks whole pork roasts and then shreds the meat.

Next to Francis are friends she has made at the series from all over the country. Former Nebraskans who now live in Arizona bring “poor man's caviar,” a mix of pinto beans, black-eyed peas and diced veggies in a sweet sauce. Baton Rouge natives contribute bags of homemade pralines. There are Coloradans and Texans whom Francis got to know over the nine years that she has been the tailgate hostess, first at Rosenblatt Stadium during just the championship games and all week long for the past three years.

“If you're at this tailgate and you aren't having a good time,” she says, “then that's your own fault.”

She said she started hosting “because I had all the stuff.”

Francis runs her tailgate party with military-like organization and efficiency. Utensils, spices and hot pads each have a regular place in a drawer. A picnic basket holds napkins and plates.

She heats pulled pork in aluminum foil pans and douses ribs with sauce using a spoon she holds between her manicured hands, the thumbnail painted like a baseball. She hands people koozies for their drinks, and when someone asks for a Sharpie, she produces one in seconds to the sound of laughter. She rips paper towels from the top of the tent, where they're rigged on a cord. All the while, she chats and laughs and entertains. It's her party.

Another day, she is dressed from head-to-toe in purple and gold to show spirit for her adopted LSU team and serves customized purple and yellow M&M candies. Nelson is cooking lunch, and Francis is more relaxed, eating a burger and hoping for a win that afternoon.

The faces she sees each year ebb and flow — people move, people have kids. And people come back. She said that's part of the fun. She feeds them, and they come back, year after year.

Francis grasps a white koozie she made for the tailgaters, printed in burgundy with an outsize state of Nebraska and a star over Omaha, connecting to smaller state maps: Texas, Arizona, Colorado, South Dakota and Louisiana. Below the states it says, “When you're here, you're Family!”

“This is family,” she said, nodding. “Our family.”

Contact the writer: Sarah Baker Hansen

sarah.bakerhansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1069    |  

Sarah writes restaurant reviews and food stories for the World-Herald.

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