This year Taste of Tennis has grown into a feast, expanding from a one-night culinary party into a week of food experiences leading up to the U.S. Open, which starts today. Indeed, associations between food and tennis have evolved greatly since the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza was caught on camera, face smeared by an ice cream sundae, while eating at the National Tennis Center’s food court during the Grand Slam tournament.
The 15th annual Taste of Tennis gala was the signature offering, featuring small plates prepared by several top local chefs, musical entertainment along with appearances by elite tennis players and celebrities. Among the surrounding events was the Celebrity Chef Tennis Challenge, held at the Midtown Tennis Club. The round-robin style mixed doubles tournament paired chefs and restaurateurs with local players. At another fete, Party with the Pros, guests enjoyed food, signature cocktails and live music, while they mingled with top names in tennis.
We spoke with Penny Lerner, CEO of AYS Sports Marketing, the event management company that organizes Taste of Tennis, about the strategy behind the new weeklong ‘food fusion’ program, while we sampled the Celebrity Chef Tennis Challenge event. Below are takeaways.
If you extend it, more will come. “We expanded the Taste of Tennis program to drive more interest in U.S. tennis since major tournament tennis doesn’t come to the U.S. that often”, she said. “We’re providing a platform and building it out so visitors will plan trips around it.”
Guests as spectators and participants. As for specific events, Lerner said they were designed “for all levels to watch and play.” She added, “The Celebrity Chef Tennis Challenge flips the plan and takes the chefs out of the kitchen and onto the courts.”
Go with the event flow. Taste of Tennis also incorporates smaller events with exclusive access, like meet-and-greets with top players. Cocktails with the Williams sisters still made the agenda, but dinner with Rafael Nadal was canceled when he withdrew from the U.S. Open due to a wrist injury. As Lerner noted, Rafa’s fans booked to see him, and for them he’s irreplaceable.
Worthwhile food charity partnership. Taste of Tennis teamed with City Harvest, a well-known non-profit food organization that helps feed the city’s hungry.
Multiple social media channels. Twitter is the social media platform where Taste is most active, Lerner said. “We just started on Instagram, and that’s the most fun since it involves photos and lots of flash”, she added. Facebook is another platform they’re engaging on, especially since so many players have large followings.
Mixed media outreach. Taste of Tennis is a blend of activities that appeals to foodies and to tennis fans. DKC PR, a longtime U.S. Open PR agency, targeted tennis, entertainment and food outlets. The Celebrity Chef Tennis Challenge was filmed and will air next month on regional cable TV sports channels.
Celebrity Chef Tennis Challenge: the pressure cooker. At the Celebrity Chef Tennis Challenge, organizers cautioned the players (like Alfred Portale of Gotham Bar and Grill and Jonathan Waxman of Barbuto) to protect their hands so they’d still be able to prepare for the gala, and reminded them that the matches were friendly fun.
Still, since it was a competition, the level of match play was serious. The winner, Christian Pappanicholas, owner of Resto and Cannibal Beer & Burger, said “when I’m out there on the court after not playing competitively for a long time, tennis is way more pressure.”
Tennis and cooking: shared themes. Despite obvious differences, tennis and cooking do have similarities: the round-robin tournament involved timed matches (like many TV cooking shows), white is the color of their traditional uniforms, and serving is integral to both lines of work.
But our favorite shared imagery came from a comment we overheard toward the end of the tournament. One chef player lamented being assigned to play against a very strong player, aka “a ringer”, and he said, “I just got creamed!”