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US Open in New York 2010 US Open in New York 2010 (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

At the US Open, Food Fit for a President

Tuesday, August 30, 2011 - 12:31 PM

Chef Jim Abbey is the U.S. Open's No. 1 chef — he's been the chief executive of food for the Open for six years.

Though he calls home Charlotte, North Carolina, Abbey is never really far from New York, and, much like the players, he spends all year planning for the Open — the largest annual sporting event in the world.

Over the course of the 20-day tournament, Abbey and his 250-plus culinary staff will feed more than 700,000 fans at 60 concession stands, five restaurants, 100 luxury suites and the Player’s Lounge.

While sampling delectable tortilla-crusted salmon (at left) and bay scallops in the kitchen of Mojitos, a Cuban-Cajun-style grill at the heart of the National Tennis Center in Corona Park, Queens, Abbey told me it’s his mission to make the food as fresh and wholesome as possible.

“We feel to have great food, you have to have great ingredients,” Abbey said. “We try to work with a lot of local purveyors.”

Abbey described a standard order with Satire Farms of Long Island, the tournament’s primary supplier of herbs and baby lettuces.

“When we make an order in the evening,” Abbey said, “they’ll pick the various items we want, pack them that night, and they’ll be here the next morning. That’s how fresh they are.”

Abbey also said his employer, Levy Restaurants and the USTA, take seriously knowing where their meat comes from. All of their steaks are certified black angus from CreekStone Farms in Kansas City. And that includes the beef for the burgers.

“We worked on our ground beef for two years,” Abbey said.

The burgers are a blend of sirloin and short rib grind.

He added, “We feel, it’s the best flavored burger there is.”

The best place to get one: the concession stand Burger! Burger!

After an overwhelming tour of U.S. Open culinary flavors, Abbey and I took a rest at the Wine Bar Food restaurant, just outside Arthur Ashe Stadium. Abbey ordered diced tuna, imported mozzarella and jumbo shrimp sambuca for the table. Before long, we were joined by Wine Bar Chef Anthony Mantuano. He looked exhausted.

“This is the first time I’ve sat down in two days,” he said.

Due to Tropical Storm Irene, the kitchen staff was forced to evacuate the site Saturday afternoon.

“We had to take all of our products from all of our kitchens and bring them down to an area with a backup generator, so it would be secured,” Abbey said .

When they got back late Sunday night, the chefs had to transport all the food back to the kitchens and then prepare it so that they could open the next morning.

“With the metro not working, all the chefs did all the work by themselves,” Abbey said.

“It was a crazy time,” Mantuano said. “Who knew what to expect? We didn’t know how much food to prep. We didn’t know how many people were gonna show up.”

Mantuano and Abbey have known each other for 15 years. They met in Chicago, where Mantuano is the owner and chef of Spiaggia, a fine Italian restaurant.

“[Abbey] is the one who makes it all happen," Mantuano said.

But Mantuano is being modest: Spiaggia is reportedly President Barack Obama’s favorite restaurant.

“That’s what he told me,” Mantuano said with a laugh. “He probably says that to every restaurant he goes to. But he was a real regular at our restaurant. Since he’s moved to Washington we have not seen him. We’ve seen the first lady.”

Mantuano said Obama likes his scallops: “Once I took them off the menu, and he let us know about it.”

In Corona Park for the next two weeks, you too can eat scallops fit for a President.

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WNYC is blogging the US Open, the final Slam of the tennis season. WNYC’s Amy Eddings and tennis writer and teaching pro Nate Chura will bring you the highlights of this perennial end-of-summer sports classic. Chime in with your thoughts on the action, your picks to win it all and your questions for the folks who work behind the scenes to make it all happen.

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