Michael Lockard hustled around Arthur Ashe Stadium on Thursday afternoon, discussing strategy on his cell phone and checking off a “hit list” of final preparations for what he called “probably the most extreme event” in his especially cutthroat field of competition.
The big event was still four days away, but after a whole year of training, he could already see the finish line: “I feel like I’m sliding into home plate.”
“Plate” being the operative word: Mr. Lockard, 35, is the top-ranked chef at this year’s U.S. Open tennis tournament.
And if you thought the action on the courts was intense, check out what goes on in the kitchens, where scores of cooks from around the country scramble to feed some 650,000 people in just two weeks.
The stats are simply mind-boggling: “Last year, we did 230,000 hamburgers and hot dogs, 30,000 pizzas, 5,000 pounds of pasta, 13 tons of steaks, 77,000 pounds of chicken breasts, 4.5 tons of crab and lobster,” said Bill Wilson, director of operations for Chicago-based concessions behemoth Levy Restaurants, which oversees all food service at the Open, as well as at a number of other high-profile national events, including the Kentucky Derby, the upcoming Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa Bay, and all the Pepsi Center activities at this week’s Democratic Convention in Denver.
“It got to the point last year where we had depleted almost all of New York of crab and lobster,” Mr. Wilson said. “Our fish purveyors had to go to secondary markets outside of New York just to get it.”
The Open is also one of the most physically grueling gigs in the grub biz: In 2006, one overworked and utterly exhausted chef stumbled into a walk-in freezer and fell asleep—standing up, no less!—before being dramatically rescued from a possible frosty death by some of his colleagues.
Yet, year after year, some 250 chefs and restaurant managers, plus about 1,500 hourly workers, sign up for the formidable 14-day marathon of meals.
“As a chef, there’s no other experience like it,” said the Open’s top toque, Mr. Lockard, who previously worked at such esteemed Manhattan eateries as Le Cirque, Aureole and Metrozur, before signing on with Levy in 2007 to help manage and redevelop the sprawling culinary real estate inside the National Tennis Center in Flushing.
“We have five different restaurants—not including the dining rooms for the players, the umpires and media,” Mr. Lockard said. “And we have all these concession stands.”
An entire “Food Village,” in fact, which, in addition to offering the usual sports-stadium staples of hamburgers, hot dogs and fries, includes separate stations for sushi, Thai shrimp, curried lamb handi, penne rigate pomodoro, carne beef tostadas and cold Maine lobster rolls.
Heck, there’s even a trendy new wine bar this year in the tennis center’s south plaza, where chef Tony Mantuano of Chicago’s famed Spiaggia restaurant serves up small plates of prosciutto and flaming ouzo shrimp with glasses of prosecco and rosato.
“It’s a real wine bar—it’s not just a concession stand,” Mr. Mantuano, author of the simply titled new cookbook Wine Bar Food, said proudly. “Look at these people,” he said of the crowd clustered around his outdoor kiosk on Monday afternoon, the first official day of tournament play. “They’re enjoying a glass of wine and they’re eating food that’s prepared right in front of their eyes. You could plop this down anywhere and it would be easily recognized as a wine bar.”
Naturally, New York’s most star-studded sporting event demands nothing less than the most fashionable foods and beverages, which is why local Levy operatives spend much of the off-season hopping from restaurant to restaurant on the lookout for the latest shifts in culinary customs. Hence, the big focus this year on such items as locally grown produce and striped bass fished fresh from the Atlantic.
“Our first customer was Stanley Tucci,” noted Mr. Mantuano, referring to the two-time Golden Globe-winning actor from the HBO films Winchell and Conspiracy. “He was the celebrity line ump that day, and he came up after he was done and had a couple of glasses of pinot grigio and some marinaded olives and was very complimentary.”
THE FOOD SERVICE has long been an important component of the Open, dating back to the first slice of quiche Lorraine served up courtside nearly 30 years ago.
And it can be a very lucrative component, with some past tournaments reportedly generating upward of $12 million in revenue—perhaps not surprising, given the prices, ranging from $6 foot-long dogs to $6,000 seafood towers served to the center’s 100 private suites.
“We do a lot of business here over 14 days,” said Levy Restaurants CEO Andy Lansing. “I can’t publicly say exactly how much.”
It has been a fairly controversial component, too, with prior Opens facing protests over the high prices, slow service and a former ban prohibiting fans from bringing in food from outside the tennis center grounds—a policy slightly altered in 2003 after much uproar. (The 2008 Open allows outside food items only “in limited quantities, or for medical, dietary or infant purposes,” according to posted security procedures.)
At least one prior concessions contractor, Sportservice Corporation of Buffalo, buckled under the pressure, resigning in 1998 after completing only two years of its seven-year contract.
Levy, now in its third year at the Open, after taking over from New York-based Restaurant Associates—both of which are owned by global Compass Group—is under contract through 2017.
The Chicago company may be as qualified as anyone to endure the daunting task, year after year. Its diverse portfolio includes about 60 sports and entertainment venues across the continent, from the Staples Center in Los Angeles to Montreal’s Bell Centre. It’s the same innovative outfit that put a Wolfgang Puck restaurant inside Walt Disney World in Florida and unveiled the first wood-burning oven in a sports arena at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.
The company does so many stadiums and arenas that even the CEO, Mr. Lansing, 48, can hardly remember whether to order Coke or Pepsi at a given venue. “You’ve got to remember that I’m in a lot of buildings,” he explained over a late lunch on Monday afternoon. “Typically, the beverage is a sponsorship with the building. So we don’t have much control. Same thing with beer.”
In 2010, the company plans to make its second foray into the coveted New York market, after signing on to handle concessions at the forthcoming Barclay Center, future home of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, at developer Bruce Ratner’s controversial Atlantic Yards complex in Prospect Heights.
“I think the building’s going to be spectacular,” said Mr. Lansing. “You know, a lot of the arenas, historically, have been, well, not cookie-cutterish because they’re all a little bit different, but they follow a similar mold. But when you have Frank Gehry design an arena and really break the mold—that’s pretty ambitious.”
He added, “Some of the things that we’re going to do with the Nets are going to be revolutionary.”
Of course, it will also feature the usual Brooklyn staples. Can you say egg creams? “Absolutely,” Mr. Lansing said. “We know Brooklyn pizza, you know, we get it. We understand the locals. We understand what they want.”
Still, it’s the U.S. Open—not the ever-litigated debacle at Atlantic Yards—that remains the company’s biggest challenge.
“I think this might have the highest degree of difficulty of anything we do,” said Mr. Lansing, whose own stomach seems at great risk of bursting under the Open’s heavy strain every time he arrives in Flushing.
“One of the things I like to do when I’m here is to taste everything in the complex over the course of the day,” he said. “Let’s think about what I just put in my mouth today: pastrami sandwich, corned beef sandwich, turkey sandwich, three salads, a hot dog, a hamburger, two different kinds of crepes, a milkshake, an omelet, hash browns—I’m just taking inventory.” He continued: “Two different kinds of pizzas, a wrap, two Indian dishes, a filet, chicken, risotto, sushi.”
And he had yet to make it over to the adjacent eatery, a steakhouse called Champions.
That’s what’s great about the Open, he said—the diversity of stuff that’s available: “If you want to go outside and get a hot dog, no problem. You want kosher food? No problem. You want a crepe? No problem. You want a Carnegie Deli sandwich? No problem. You want Cuban food and mojitos? No problem.
“Historically, with stadiums, people come in with very low expectations,” Mr. Lansing said. “People grew up at sporting events treated like captives. I mean, the attitude was sort of, ‘Next! Next!’ That was the mentality. We got into this business to bring restaurant-quality food to places where people least expect it.”
He’s quickly learned that in New York, people expect a lot. “I can’t imagine any more variety,” Mr. Lansing said. “Yet I was talking to a gentleman today who very politely asked why we didn’t do chicken wings. We do chicken tenders, we do all sorts of things, but we don’t do the old traditional Buffalo chicken wing. Interestingly, we used to do it, then took it off the menu two years ago because it wasn’t a big seller for us.”