The U.S. Open is the most attended annual sporting event in the world. In six of the past seven years, the New York City grounds have attracted more than 700,000 fans -- including 713,026 last year -- for the festivities, which last just over two weeks.
Along with great sporting popularity comes great responsibility in feeding the crowds. The USTA combats the onslaught of hundreds of thousands of hungry spectators with 60 concession stands, five sit-down restaurants, a massive food court, 100 suites and a players' lounge. Levy Restaurants, a Chicago-based restaurant company, has been in charge of culinary oversight at the event for nine years running.
"The people that come to the Open are part of a sophisticated group," says Jennifer Cox, a Levy's vice president. "Laid back, but sophisticated. They're very aware of what's on-trend and what makes people happy food-wise. There's a lot of time in a tennis tournament to break away and spend the day. It's not just about the one match."
To promote the culinary aspects of the U.S. Open, the USTA and Levy Restaurants are taking a food truck around New York City. The truck visited Madison Square Park on Monday with stops planned for Union Square Park at 12 p.m. Tuesday and Bryant Park at 5 p.m. Wednesday -- and it's free. Each day, the specific dishes alter, although the signature U.S. Open lobster roll remains a constant.
In the past half decade, the USTA and Levy Restaurants has brought in a loaded roster of famous chefs. In a way, the U.S. Open becomes an All-Star event for chefs, as well as tennis players. Celebrity chefs David Burke, Masaharu Morimoto and Tony Mantuano remain on-board from 2013 to 2014, while chef Richard Sandoval joins the fold.
On Monday, Burke, notable for his appearances on "Top Chef Masters," served out of the food truck, along with Cox. This will be Burke's third year at the U.S. Open, where he oversees Champions Bar & Grill.
"The USTA came up with a way to let people know there is fine quality, local food at sustainable venues at the U.S. Open this year and in past years," Burke said of the food truck. "You can not only see great sports, but you can eat well."
On Monday, the truck served the lobster roll staple, along with Burkes' filet slider with cracked pepper and onion marmalade. Burke and Cox provided a meatball slider as a third dish.
The scene at Madison Square Park featured three platters of sandwiches, a U.S. Open-laden truck, cardboard cutouts of 2013 champions Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams and the U.S. Open trophy.
"We really want to make people excited about the U.S. Open and we want to encourage people who are excited about food to be excited about the U.S. Open," Cox says.
Regulars at the U.S. Open recognize its food court as the best in sports, while brands and restaurants continue to partner with the event.
"I think food is important because people of that caliber who are going to the U.S. Open expect this type of product," Burke says.
The lobster is the poster boy (not to be confused with po'boy) for the U.S. Open for a variety of reasons. Its buttery-seafood taste certainly contributes, as does its thematic purpose and temperature.
"It's seasonal," Burke says. "It's East Coast. It's gaining popularity. It's easy to eat."
"It's a classic. Given it's so warm outside, it's a nice cold item," Cox adds.
As for the other dishes served, Burke's filet slider included a tender cut in a standard burger bun. Disguised as a hamburger, the meat is softer than average ground beef, making the bite seem even softer than it really is. The cracked pepper and onion marmalade add flavor to the already juicy beef.
The meatball slider includes a hearty roll, but it is the ricotta cheese that makes the plate pop. This adds an extra dimension to a traditional meat, sauce and cheese dish.
The opening matches of the U.S. Open are two weeks away, but the culinary preparation for the event is in full swing. The world's greatest tennis stars are on their way to Queens, as are the world's top chefs and food providers.
"I'm from Chicago. I spend 20 beautiful days in Flushing every summer," Cox says.
It is about that time again. The countdown to the U.S. Open is on. The food truck is a subtle reminder.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.