BY: Nekesa Mumbi Moody
NEW YORK – There’s been intense competition going on at the U.S. Open, and it has nothing to do with aces or foot faults.
Instead, five of Bravo TV’s ‘Top Chef Masters‘ have been working to create the best food of the tournament — something more elegant than hot dogs, pretzels and burgers.
“This is the U.S. Open; there is nothing like this,” said Miami-based chef Carmen Gonzalez, sitting with the rest of her culinary compatriots before Saturday night’s match between James Blake and Novack Djokovic.
“The people who come here they want good food.”
To that end, they created recipes like pulled pork tacos, from Los Angeles chef Susan Feniger, and Rick Moonen’s shrimp and tilapia burger.
“I do a shrimp version of a hot dog,” joked Moonen, who is based in Las Vegas.
All of the dishes have been on sale since the start of the championship last week, and the creator of the most popular dish will win $5,000 for their favorite charity. Jonathan Waxman’s Roast Chicken Panini with basil aioli and greens was the victor; his charity was City Meals on Wheels.
The contest was born after Tony Mantuano, the renowned Chicago restaurateur and favorite of President Barack Obama, challenged his colleagues to create a different kind of menu for the thousands of fans at the tennis grand slam event.
Mantuano had been at the Open for the past three years, creating specialties with his Wine Bar Food outpost, and hoped to do something on a grander scale.
“You have to keep evolving and innovating and making new things,” he said. “Why wouldn’t people want to eat this way?”
But creating Michelin-quality food at a sporting event — where sausage, chicken fingers and fries are the typical go-to foods — created hurdles, the chefs admitted.
“The biggest challenge was getting to understand the numbers and the volume,” said Waxman, the bicoastal restaurant owner and author. “We deal in smaller numbers. (But) I don’t think there were any disasters.”
The chefs came up with their recipies, then worked with the cooking staff at the Open to translate the dishes to the masses. More than 20,000 people come to the tennis center daily during the two-week tournament.
Though the U.S. Open has expanded its food choices over the years to include sushi, Mexican and Indian, the master chef competition was its most ambitious culinary move.
“It’s a very sophisticated audience,” Waxman said of Open fans.
The five chefs all participated in a cook-off Saturday in front of fans as they recreated their dishes.
“People were waiting in between matches and they would stop,” Feniger said. “It was fun for them to watch us each doing preparations.”
Feniger, who admits to being partial to “Dodger Dogs” when she watches her baseball team in Los Angeles, said one of the best things about the competition is that it raises the expectations of the fan about their food options at big sporting events.
“Typically, you don’t go to sporting events and expect to eat great food,” she said.
But after this week, perhaps that will change.
“I do think this is a glimpse into the future,” Mantuano said.
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