Tasting Tennis

Before the US Open Begins, Chefs Take the Spotlight

Chefs Burke, Morimoto, Mantuano, and Abbey at the US Open tasting last week.

[Note: As some readers know, I'm a passionate (read: addictied) tennis player and fan, as well as an editor at-large for TENNIS magazine. For the next two weeks I'll be part of the publication’s website coverage team at the US Open. As time allows, I'll also post here on Toqueland during the tournament. In the meantime, a little ditty about a food-focused day at and around the Open last week. - AF]

The penultimate day of the US Open, dubbed Super Saturday, is one of the biggest days in tennis, on which both men’s semifinals and the women’s final are played. Last week came the food and drink equivalent, let’s call it Tasting Thursday, which brought both a sampling of food and drink that will be available during the tournament, and an annual benefit event, BNP Paribas Taste of Tennis.

The tasting of US Open offerings was held at lunchtime in Aces restaurant in Arthur Ashe Stadium, one of five on-site restaurants operated by Levy Restaurants, who hold the coveted US Open foodservice contract.

As it has for a few years, the event consisted of a photo op, tasting, and the shepherding around of chefs to journalists for impromptu, tableside interviews. It was an impressive show of force: In addition to Levy’s Executive Chef for the Open, Jim Abbey, Tony Mantuano, the big-hearted founder of Chicago’s Spiaggia restaurant, which is today owned by Levy, was there to represent his longtime Wine Bar Food concept at the Open. This year, the centrally located, open-air watering hole and cafe has added a supremely runny burrata from local Brooklyn Cheese Company to its menu. As he did last year, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto (appropriately enough, a former athlete, although his sport was baseball) took the floor to promote his US Open sushi. The new kid in the kitchen in 2012 is the ever-mischievous David Burke, whom Levy has brought on board to add his playful touch to Champions restaurant which will function as a sort-of steakhouse this year. (One of the items passed to seated journalists were vintage Burke: a cheesecake lollipop tree with a bubble gum-whipped cream dipping sauce.) LaFrieda’s Mark Pastore, butchery’s Vince Vaughn, was also in attendance to support to his proprietary US Open burger; LaFrieda is having quite the month, having just introduced their sandwich stand at Citi Field, across the street from the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center, earlier in August.

Usually the Open tasting draws a crowd primarily composed of food bloggers, but this year the organizers shrewdly tethered it to the tournament’s draw ceremony, enticing many tennis reporters to attend: for me, it was a chance to chow down with good friends Pete Bodo, one the deans of American tennis journalism; Tom Perrotta, who writes for the Wall Street Journal and TENNIS; Ted Loos, there under the auspices of Newsday; and Karen Pestaina of TennisPanorama.com. Now that the action is underway (the Open kicked off about an hour ago), you can bet the five of us will not enjoy such a semi-leisurely meal again until the tournament is wrapped, hopefully on Sunday, September 9. (The last few Opens have had Monday men’s finals due to rain.)

Quiet Before the Storm: The last meal of its kind for at least 2 weeks

My favorites of the food I sampled were Burke’s Ash-Crusted Prime Beef Carpacio, the Pesado a la Plancha from Mojitos restaurant, and that burrata that Mantuano is serving up. To be honest, my favorites here at the Open are populist grub such as the sausage and pepper sandwich, but I’ll be trying other, more fancified dishes during my two weeks out here, and if the spirit moves me, will report back on occasion.

Michael Russell, left, and Kerry Heffernan

On Thursday night, a few hours after the Open lunch, I hit Taste of Tennis, an annual benefit event at the W Hotel on Lexington Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. It’s like most tasting events—a few contiguous rooms with tasting tables around the perimeter–but with a twist: tennis players are paired with the chefs, in theory to help them cook, though it doesn’t always work out that way because many players simply move dishes from the prep area to the pass. (In many cases, the players themselves tell me, this is for the best.) And so, huge props to Michael Russell, a veteran American player (best known for coming within a point of dethroning Guga Kuerten at the French Open many years ago) who earnestly helped Kerry Heffernan plate. The gesture was was much appreciated by Kerry as he and his wife had just welcomed a new baby boy the day before. On a personal note, it was terrific to see James Blake, whose book Breaking Back I had the distinct pleasure of coauthoring in 2007. James was working the Meatball Shop station, with his fiancée and their new baby girl, hanging out nearby. Other chefs on hand included Dan Holzman and Michael Chernow of The Meatball Shop, Chris Leahy of Lexington Brass, and Landmarc’s Marc Murphy. (Barbuto’s Jonathan Waxman was in the VIP Lounge downstairs, serving the glitterati behind closed doors.)  Top Chef‘s Gail Simmons was also there to conduct a drinks demo with the great US doubles team the Bryan Brothers.

All in all it was a fun, indulgent interlude before the tournament devours journalists and players alike for the next two weeks. By this morning, my concerns couldn’t have been more different than they were on Thursday: at the gym at 5:30am, out at the Open by 9:30, already writing. For players, obviously, the shift is even more dramatic. James Blake is out on Louis Armstrong Stadium right now, up a set up against his opponent. Think I’ll go out and see how he’s playing. The focus is all on the court now, the food relegated to the sidelines once again.

Andrew