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U.S. Open culinary team feeds hungry tennis fans

Executive Chef Jim Abbey of Levy Restaurants is

Executive Chef Jim Abbey of Levy Restaurants is overseeing the menu items at the USTA Open in Flushing Meadows this year. Here Jim shows off a dish of Skuna Bay Craft Raised Salmon. (Sep. 2, 2012) Credit: Steven Sunshine

Imagine feeding 700,000 people over the course of 20 days.

That's the task of the U.S. Open culinary team that's busy trying to please tennis fans and their diverse palates at one of the world's largest annual sporting events.

"Normal sporting events may be two to three hours. This event, you can come all day for lunch and be here for dinner," said the U.S. Open's head chef Jim Abbey, also the regional executive chef for Levy Restaurants.

More than 250 chefs and cooks work to prepare food for five restaurants, 60 concession stands and 100 suites, said Daniel Zausner, chief operating officer at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens. The Food Village offers a variety of international foods, including French crepes, made-to-order Mexican burritos and Indian dishes such as chicken tikka masala, ranging from $8.75 to $11.

There are many kitchens, including one that houses about 75 cooks and is open round-the-clock.

Farm-to-fork freshness is this year's dining theme, Abbey said, and new this year is the Farm to Fork stand, which features organic and locally sourced ingredients.

Visitor Andi Black of Old Westbury described the stand's summer roasted vegetable sandwich as "very fresh," saying she expects more from the food at the U.S. Open than at other sporting events.

"In a baseball game or a football game, it's more like you're holding it in your hand, you're eating and screaming," she said. "Here, it's a part of the day."

Her dining companion, Maria Litvak of Manhasset, said the two women "always plan on having a meal when we come out here. It's part of the fun."

Meeting those types of expectations requires planning that starts months before the Open, Abbey said. The burger -- a special blend of ground short rib, brisket and chuck, created with LaFrieda Beef -- was tested over the course of a whole year, he said.

Abbey worked directly with regional farms like Satur Farms in Cutchogue, as well as fisheries in Montauk, to plan menus based on items that will be in season and plentiful.

That was evident for Julia Spalten, 30, of Jacksonville, Fla., as she ate an arugula salad with buffalo mozzarella, kalamata olives and sun-dried tomatoes at James Beard award-winning chef Tony Mantuano's Wine Bar.

"It's delicious . . . The arugula, you can tell it's fresh, it hasn't been sitting," she said.

The Wine Bar is the only restaurant with a celebrity chef collaboration that is open to the public. Special ticketholders can try new signature items from David Burke at Champions Bar & Grill, including his patented dry-aged, bone-in rib-eye and cheesecake lollipop tree. At ACES, guests can feast on new signature sushi rolls that "Iron Chef" Masaharu Morimoto created for the U.S. Open.

Still, some patrons weren't impressed with the dining options.

Mitch Stein, 61, of Westchester, said he has noticed a food trend over the course of his 40 years of attendance. "It's been consistently awful," he said, adding that his dining companion had moldy bread on a sandwich two years ago. "I come for the tennis, not for the food."

Lili Drob of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, chose to bring homemade food for her family's day at the Open. She said she cooked for 2 1/2 hours, making baked chicken, brown rice, pesto pasta and salad for husband Sandy and son Martín.

"But the main thing is that you treat people like they're coming to your home," Abbey said.

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