Pro wrestling has long had a strangely symbiotic relationship with food. During the late 1990s, The Rock frequently asked if you could smell what he was cooking, and referenced pie and strudel for sexual innuendos. Meanwhile, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s trademark post-win celebration involved chugging “Steveweiser” beers. He’s even brought an entire beer truck out to the ring multiple times, spraying his opponents with brew.
More recently, Daniel Bryan made his once-accurate-to-real-life trait of being a vegan part of a smarmy, villainous character. During sponsorship-related spots on WWE Raw, CM Punk lovingly gazed at KFC’s grilled chicken and started beef with Jared from Subway. (Lately, WWE has advertised Sonic and Twisted Tea.) Punk, who has a tattoo of the Pepsi logo on his shoulder, also complained about John Cena spilling his Diet Pepsi during one segment. Speaking of Cena, The Rock gave him the nickname “Fruity Pebbles,” mocking Cena for his brightly colored merchandise. Cena and Fruity Pebbles managed to both turn that diss into a positive, as the wrestler now reps the cereal in an official capacity.
Wrestling-related food commercials have been a thing for years, with Mankind peddling Chef Boyardee and “Macho Man” Randy Savage urging us to snap into a Slim Jim. WWE has put out its own food products, too, like ice cream bars and an officially licensed cookbook. Several restaurants have been started (and usually shuttered) by wrestlers and promotions: Hulk Hogan’s Pastamania!, WWF New York, WCW Nitro Grill, Abdullah the Butcher’s House of Ribs & Chinese Food. Even Raw, WWE’s marquee weekly program, used to advertise itself as a piece of meat with the slogan “Uncut. Uncensored. Uncooked.”
But more fascinating than the on-screen links is the backstage lore involving wrestlers and food. Traditions and trivia are scattered everywhere. In the 1980s, WWF wrestler Ken Patera launched a rock through the window of a McDonald’s in Wisconsin when its staff denied him service after hours, starting a chain reaction that would lead to Patera doing two years behind bars. In one ’90s clip captured on a camcorder, wrestling manager Jim Cornette let out a profanity-laden tirade at Dairy Queen drive-thru workers for assuming that a huge order Cornette and some wrestlers placed was a joke. The Big Show used to eat toothpaste sandwiches, and legendary tough guy the Undertaker is apparently creeped out by cucumbers. Harley Race’s barbecues were once popular social events for wrestlers, with Owen Hart pulling a prank during one that involved dumping hot sauce into a container of chili and ruining the whole thing. Nationally, Kowloon Restaurant in Saugus, MA is a hot spot for WWE wrestlers after they’ve performed in nearby Boston. And overseas, the Ribera Steakhouse in Japan is a must-visit spot for wrestlers of all stripes. Scoring an official Ribera Steakhouse jacket and having your picture taken in it is an industry tradition.
The Great Khali tends to eat alone, and The Rock is particular enough about his portioning that he uses food scales.
Nowadays, the social nexus of the world’s biggest wrestling organization is WWE’s backstage dining area, where on- and off-screen staff wander in and out of all day. That’s where you’ll find Jen Hagopian. Working on behalf of Dega Catering from Knoxville, TN, she has been working with WWE for eight years as Catering Crew Chief for the WWE Tour. Before this assignment, she hit the road with Mötley Crüe (which she likens to WWE in that both tours have a circus-act vibe), Tim Graw, and Faith Hill.
Every week, Hagopian leaves her place in Parsonsfield, ME and ends up wherever WWE is doing a live televised event, whether it’s Raw (broadcast live on Mondays on USA Network) or SmackDown (taped on Tuesdays, broadcast on Fridays on Syfy). (WWE runs non-televised events, too, but they don’t involve hundreds of people, so that scale of catering isn’t needed.) She spends about 150 days a year on the road but also does some preparation and communicating for work from home. One Sunday a month, WWE holds a special event that was formerly available on pay-per-view and is now on the WWE Network. One of the company’s biggest shows is WWE SummerSlam, which takes place this Sunday, August 17, at L.A.’s Staples Center.
Being backstage, she’s frequently around not only WWE wrestlers—The Great Khali, she says, tends to eat alone, and The Rock is particular enough about his portioning that he uses food scales—but also the executives behind the organization. In the past, Hagopian has helped Stephanie McMahon sing “Happy Birthday” to Vince McMahon, her father and WWE’s highest power. (The boss also receives a customary whoopee cushion.) Meanwhile, Stephanie and her husband/executive/wrestler Triple H once paused a daily production meeting to make everyone stand up and sing “Happy Birthday” to Hagopian. She’s also friends with wrestlers (she declines naming names so as to not offend people who get left out), and has appeared in the background of enough taped segments that she’s lost count. For our second look at the intersection between pro wrestling and food (here’s the first), we spoke to her about her odd—and messy—line of work.
TALKING WWE CATERING WITH JEN HAGOPIAN
What was your level of familiarity of WWE—or even the idea of pro wrestling—before you started working with WWE eight years ago?
Well, when they first told me I was going out on tour with WWE, I had no idea what they were talking about and had to Google it. I figured out, ‘Oh yeah, it sounds like WWF, and it is the same thing. It’s just that we had to change the lettering.’
It’s something that I never really thought about. The most I ever touched base with it as a kid was I would be flipping through the TV channels, look at it, see how silly it was, and keep on going. [Plus], just standard pop culture [associations]. You can’t not see something with Hulk Hogan on it or “Snap into a Slim Jim” commercials with “Macho Man” Randy Savage, so there’s always that background wrestling culture interjected into your life throughout most of the ’80s when I was growing up. I definitely saw some of it, but I never liked it at all. Now, I say, I’m not a wrestling fan, I’m a wrestler fan. They’re my friends now, and I know them. I’m still not really into the whole wrestling thing.
What’s your earliest memory of a specific experience working with WWE?
Before I even went on this tour, I was a stagehand here in Portland, Maine at the local Civic Center. I was doing a load-out, breaking down the staging and all the things that were incorporated into the show. I was on stage, and it was dark in the back part of the stage. It was very dark and I remember I tripped over something. Then, I opened the curtain and I looked behind me and saw that I must have tripped over the Undertaker’s foot. It was huge. It was wearing a boot. I felt really stupid and apologized and rapidly got out of there before I got put in a chokehold or something. I didn’t see the show that night, but I did feel like I took part of it.
Behind the scenes in the catering hall (photo courtesy WWE)
Take us through your daily routine.
Every city we go to, my head chef Jack goes shopping locally at 6:30 in the morning whatever time zone we’re in with a local runner in a cargo van. They go power shopping. They’ll go to fish purveyors, wholesale clubs, regular grocery stores, and just pack the van to the top within a two- to three-hour time period. He knows all the stores in every city we go to now. It’s always the same cities over and over, so we’re quite familiar with where they’re located, how far away, what quality of produce they have, etcetera.
While he’s shopping, we’ll be back at the arena loading in our gear, which is all on wheels, off of our 18-wheeler truck. We’ll be building the locations, which are the kitchen and the dining room, and sometimes also a separate dish room, and creating the feng shui for the dining room. We’ll be prepping stuff in the kitchen, starting out breakfast-style foods for the continental breakfast that we have for our regular crew. The wrestlers aren’t there at this point, so we don’t have a lot to start out with from our pre-shop, which is done the day before when you have a smaller $2,000 shop for beverages and things to get us going first thing in the morning.
It’s kind of like an episode of Iron Chef for 10 hours straight—just balls to the wall for the entire day.
We’re waiting for our Jack to get back. Usually [at] about 8:30am, he’ll roll up with the runner. Then, it’s a mad house. We unload the van, and there’s prepping everywhere. We have five local helpers that are prepping and helping us slice and dice food and prepare everything for the big meal, which is at 11:30 in the morning. That is [the wrestlers’] dinner. They want to eat lighter for the second meal because they’re going to be performing soon afterwards. The big, big meal starts at 11:30am and goes to 4:30pm. At 4:30, we switch over to the lighter second meal which ends at the show time, which is usually around 7:30 at night. The way everything happens, it’s kind of like an episode of Iron Chef for 10 hours straight—just balls to the wall for the entire day.
I’ll also be preparing beverages for all the dressing rooms where the talent are located, [plus] Vince McMahon’s room. He gets fed every two-and-a-half hours in his room with proteins and vegetables. Then, for me, it’s putting out fires throughout the day, figuratively and literally, which has happened in some cases where our ovens have blown up. Then, the show starts and we break everything down. It all goes back into all the road cases, and they roll back into our 18-wheelers, and then we move on to the next city.
What are the quantities of the key items you’re working with?
Well, I have been doing interviews over the years, and when I tell people the quantities, it’s just gradually gotten bigger and bigger every year. At this point, since we have started the [WWE] Network, and there have been more divisions and departments and facets to WWE, it’s exploded and turned into a bigger animal than previous years. I’m going to go with our standard, slightly bigger answer than the last two years, which has been about 200 pounds each of chicken and beef a day. In the past, it’s been 150 to 200, and now it’s 200 to even more on some days. I go through about a hundred to 150 cases of water a day. There’s a lot of people practicing and going to gyms and doing workouts at the venue and climbing stairs and jogging, and they just constantly are needing to rehydrate. That’s just the water aspect of it. Our dining room carries a full beverage section. There’s an espresso machine. We probably go through about 150 espresso pots a day for our machine, maybe more at this point. We go through about 150 pounds of seafood a day for the one dish for the first meal. We probably go through about 10 pounds of rice a day.
This really does sound like Iron Chef with you in the Kitchen Arena, going around and having to manage huge quantities of food.
Yeah, chopping and grating and grinding. My four chefs that work for Dega [are] multi-tasking all day long. Plus, again, we have the four catering assistants, and one runner that’s jumping in wherever they can. I have two dining room people that are maintaining everything out on the line in the dining room, and keeping the coffee going, and refreshing all the cakes and pies. We probably go through about 30 cakes and pies a day, and tray after tray after tray of cookies. They love the cookies. It’s not just the wrestlers; we’re usually feeding anywhere from 50 to a hundred wrestlers, plus we feed another 150 of our tour crew and about 100 to 150 local stagehands. Those are between 300 to 500 people per meal a day, plus the breakfast just [for] our traveling crew. It’s fun and it’s quite an armload of work, but we’re probably the most popular people backstage because we’re feeding them. Without having this catering aspect, it would be a lot of work for people to come in to do work and have to go find their food somewhere else or take a buy-out, which means they just get the money so that they can find their own devices to eat.
We probably go through about 30 cakes and pies a day.
Our catering world is the center of social life. People come and refresh there. They get to just not think about work so much when they come in. It’s more like a big social gathering. Some people are just standing there grazing and focusing on food and not worrying about up-and-coming stuff or the course of their night. It’s almost like having a restaurant in the middle of the day. Again, the food is awesome. My chefs try to use as many organic ingredients as possible. They’re not just going and throwing up slop like frozen Sysco products or anything. They’re buying fresh produce every day and making a nice presentation and tasty food, which is very difficult to do in that capacity.
Is your catering different for a big WWE show like WrestleMania or SummerSlam?
It’s a lot busier, [with] bigger proportions. We have to rent a lot of gear for the additional mouths to feed for both of those. I even go out to the location months before to be on-site to prepare for WrestleMania. It’s the Super Bowl of all wrestling things, [with] thousands of people to feed and a lot of elements involved that we wouldn’t normally have to make it happen, like extra refrigerators and extra local purveyors that can handle the quantity of shopping we do. Same thing with SummerSlam: That’s an event where everybody wants to show up, and everybody’s a star, and everybody’s bringing their families. Special events are happening, extra vignettes—just more mouths to feed in general. We usually do extra gear and try to hire extra local people to help us out.
Photo courtesy WWE
What are the most popular things to eat amongst wrestlers overall?
Well, they tend to gravitate towards the plain grilled chicken dishes—things without sauces and gravies, so a lot of ’em are obviously watching their health and watching calories. We do a lot of the grilled chicken as a plain chicken. We’ll have another [option] so people who aren’t necessarily counting calories can just have a wonderfully flavored dish. [For] some of the bells and whistles that people request a lot, Cholula Hot Sauce seems to be one of the items. The cookies are a staple with us. We need to have cookies out every day or there’s probably 40, 50 requests for ’em if we don’t have the cookies out. There’s always an oatmeal dish: There’s either a big container of oatmeal that’s fresh in the morning that we leave up until around lunchtime, and then we try to refresh that, or at least we’ll have the oatmeal packets so that they can put ’em in their pockets and take ’em to their buses or hotels. Rice is also a staple. We always have the salad bar out. Every day, we put out a special salad, which is usually what I go for for my meal. One of my favorite ones, which is also a very popular dish, is the watermelon, feta, mint, and balsamic vinaigrette salad, so it’s really a good refreshing summer salad. Another popular one is arugula with shaved Parmesan and grilled figs.
Some eating-related trends and niches—vegetarian options, vegan options, gluten-free options, organic food, local food, grass-fed beef—are here to stay and some go. Which of these are a priority?
Well, we have quite a variety. Having that many people involved, there’s many food allergies. There’s many different diets we’re trying to help out. We try to cater to everybody if we can. On a daily basis, we always have vegetarian options. We try to do a vegan option. If somebody comes and says, ‘Hey, what do you have if I have a nut allergy?,’ we will radio our chef and make sure certain things are safe for them. We’ve got gluten-free people—myself included. I’m actually a gluten-free pescatarian with multiple food intolerances. I know how it is. There is a lot of special requests. Some of the bigger names might have preference with the way they like their steak cooked or they want something without a sauce or they want to modify what we have out on the line, so they’ll come to the kitchen. They know my chefs now. My chefs are very accommodating. Basically, everybody has something they can eat.
Are there any foods banned from catering either in that you never want them there or no one likes them? Anything taboo explicitly or implicitly?
There is no taboo. There are certain things I have to watch for. We have a sponsor usually for beverages or candies every year. Occasionally, it changes. Right now, Coke is one of our sponsors, but in the past, it was Pepsi, so I have to keep the Pepsi logo out of shots, so I couldn’t buy it at all. I also have to be on the lookout constantly for food recalls. Right now, there’s a stone fruit recall for Listeria, so I have to call local places in advance and say, ‘Please don’t buy us any stone fruit. It’s not safe right now.’ There was a peanut butter recall a few years ago. You have to constantly try to think of the endless possibilities of all the bad things that could happen and how to prevent us from having to get anywhere near that situation. If a wrestler pointed at catering for being sick and not being able to be in the show, that would definitely put a damper on my work day.
Over your eight years, have you witnessed any fad diets come in and go out?
Oh yeah, they happen every year. We get the burden of accommodating whatever style it is. Some people will come in and say, ‘Oh, we’re only going to be doing peanut butter and cheese this week.’ They’ll tell three of their friends, and then all of a sudden, we’ve got a whole slew of people doing this crazy, weird diet. That seriously happens multiple times a year in different groups. John Cena actually has his own diet plan right now and he’s got a bunch of our crew guys and some of the other wrestlers doing it, and it seems to be working pretty well. I know that they have one day that they’ll do sweets and be able to not be on the diet, so they’ll all pick one of the days at work where they can come in the dining room and just binge on these cookies and take some stuff.
WWE will occasionally have segments in which someone will get hit with or thrown into food. Would they ever come to you with requests like that?
Oh, they come right to me. I actually was just talking a couple of weeks ago about how it’s been a while since we’ve done a food fight. I’m knocking on wood right now because it’s always a mess and it’s not a fun thing for me to do to get them. Sometimes, they do slop. They just want leftover stuff in a bucket so they can throw it and they can mess up all my stuff in the dining room. Other times, they want something like a turkey dinner around Thanksgiving, so my chefs have to do a side project of cooking a specific turkey and making it look this pretty.
They did this crazy food fight at the end of the night where I think Triple H came in and possibly threw a giant bucket of chili on top of Daniel Bryan.
Recently, we were in Fayetteville, North Carolina, also lovingly known as Fayette-nam. It’s not the best building to work in because [the dining workspace is] in a closet area. It’s almost unworkable because it’s so small. It’s difficult to set up in a crazy storage space for the amount of people we’re seating, but somehow, we miraculously pull it off. Not this time, but the previous time we were there, they did this crazy food fight at the end of the night where I think Triple H came in and possibly threw a giant bucket of chili on top of Daniel Bryan. I think it was Bryan; I lose track of all the elements because I don’t watch it. I’m just there seeing bits and pieces of it when they’re filming. I have to make sure that my people are not in the shot, or sometimes they want ’em in the shot. I might be paying a lot of attention if they need my guys or me in the shot. Other times if I’m not involved with it, I’ll be trying to tiptoe around the edge and mind my business and keep doing my work, so that was one of the times where they wanted me to be in it, just for a second. Meanwhile, I’m trying to do my regular work and get things done, peeking around and making sure that it’s not my time to get in the shot yet.
[The chili] was a mess. We did have to make it cool enough so it didn’t burn anybody, so it’s more of a prop item rather than straight-off-the-line hot food. That happens randomly once every six months. It gets crazier around the holidays, typically. I might have to set up a table for a big display with all the bells and whistles, and bowls of food here and there, and candles and flowers. That’s always fun, to try to incorporate all these extra things into my regular daily craziness.
Does it ever feel heartbreaking or strange that you’re going to make this nice meal that’s just going to be used to be thrown at someone or pushed onto a floor?
Yeah. I have to do what they want me to do. It’s for the betterment for the show, and it makes it interesting, and then I have this crazy story. ‘Oh yeah, I did this today. This is what my life’s about.’ I have guys in the dining room not wearing pants. [Laughs] I’ve got guys walking around in the hallway wearing cheeseburger sheets and bunny rabbit costumes. That’s what we do to make this show work.
What’s it been like being a reoccurring character there in the background?
Recently, somebody sent me an article of the six most interesting people seen at the Daniel Bryan “Yes! Movement,” and I was number six, or number one, or something like that as Lita’s doppelgänger. I was on TV quite a bit, and they did a vignette afterward and I was in that as well.
Conjecture has it that I might be a WWE employee. It’s not hard to figure it out. [Laughs] I’ve been in some [vignettes] with William Regal. He was my trashman picking up trash in the dining room and I was bossing him around. Another time, I was in a restaurant scene with Tony Atlas talking about going on dates. It’s been interesting. It’s up and down and across the board.
Out of all that you have seen in WWE, what stands out in your head as the strangest situation you have ever been in?
There’s probably a lot, but on the spot, I tend to think of having to help set up the pudding pools that they do those pudding matches in. We’ve had a few of those. It just seems so crazy to see hundreds of pounds of pudding getting put in swimming pools. Very interesting. [Watch a video of a WWE pudding match below.]
Several years ago, the Great Khali had a gimmick where his “family” would come into the ring with him and have all their goats and sheep and chickens [in the ring]. We had a lot of livestock backstage. Just having to pen up things when they escape and trying to rally everybody to help out doing certain strange skits, it’s a wild and crazy world backstage sometimes. We have crazy stunts that also happen with our stuntman Ellis Edwards, who’s awesome and a good friend of mine. We’ve had 18-wheelers drive backstage where they had me pretend like I was putting on hairspray in the hallway, and all of a sudden, the 18-wheeler comes screaming up through the hallway and I have to jump and roll out of the way. It’s fun, and it’s constantly keeping you on your toes ’cause you never know what’s really going on. Occasionally, you’ll be walking through the hallway or pushing a cart and people will yell out, ‘Get out of the way’ or ‘Be careful, there’s a shot coming up.’ I used to just roll my eyes in the back of my head thinking, ‘You’re kidding me! Are you serious?’ Now, nothing bothers me, and nothing’s really strange anymore.
Photo courtesy WWE
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