By Ben Rothenberg | New York Times News Service
INDIAN WELLS, California—In a matchup of celebrity chefs, Nobu Matsuhisa beat Wolfgang Puck to the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament by three years. Puck opened a colony of Spago—the Beverly Hills restaurant that popularized smoked salmon pizza—this month at the tournament’s main stadium.
Patrons can watch matches there through floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the main court. They can have famous pizza for $35, or they can pay $140 for 4 ounces of Wagyu steak at the Nobu offshoot in the secondary stadium in Indian Wells, a California desert resort community near Palm Springs.
Or they can try a hot dog, with assurances from the tournament literature that it is one of “simply ‘the best hot dogs’ presented by the two-star Michelin chef Josiah Citrin.”
Nobu, Spago and every other concession will shut down like a culinary Brigadoon when the two-week event concludes on Sunday. When the tournament begins next year, the tennis center will probably be even more opulent. That has been the pattern ever since the tournament was bought in 2009 by billionaire Larry Ellison, who helped start the technology company Oracle and whose sailing team has won the past two America’s Cups.
Ellison rarely does anything on a small scale. The tournament site has undergone major renovations each of the past four years. For 2017 the suites gained private bathrooms, complete with automated toilets with lids that rise invitingly as a person approaches.
A ticket for a front box seat for the entire tournament cost as much as $8,700 and included access to a premium lounge and refreshments, reminiscent of clubs at major international airports.
While the high-end restaurants were added primarily for fans, the athletes occasionally get a taste. This year Nobu expanded its reach at the tournament into the players’ dining area, offering specialty sushi rolls and bento boxes.
Svetlana Kuznetsova, the eighth seed in women’s singles, realized how quickly a player’s $100-a-day food allowance could be spent.
“I was just having lunch in the players’ area, and I just got four boxes of sushi and it cost me $80,” a wide-eyed Kuznetsova said. “I said, ‘Sorry, $18?’ and she said, ‘No, $80.’”
Eventually, she understood the price tag.
“Then I realized it’s Nobu,” Kuznetsova said. “I’d rather pay for quality food than eat not-quality sushi. It’s great; it’s great to have good, quality food. I hope one day tennis can get to that level where we eat this food every week.”
Although tournament officials eagerly discussed nearly every detail of the building—like the 24,000 square feet of teak tile for the suites—they hushed themselves quickly when conversation turned to the Champions Club, a section of the first three rows behind the south baseline in the main stadium, which is reserved for Ellison and his guests. It is reminiscent of Wimbledon Centre Court’s Royal Box, with its own private entrance. Its amenities are kept secret.
“Not everybody gets to go to the one area where Larry sits in the Champions Club, but it’s so special,” said Tommy Haas, the new tournament director, who could frequently be seen popping into the club. “You can’t purchase those seats.”
Haas revealed nothing about that part of his workplace.
“It’s pretty private, so I can’t really talk about it too much,” Haas said. “That’s a cool thing about it, too, is that it is private, and there is a little bit of mystery about it. The few people that have the chance to go down there, that are invited, are blown away by what they see.”
Puck said at a news conference before the tournament began that Ellison and tournament officials had done everything possible to help convert three suites into Spago Indian Wells.
“I even ordered the stove from France, a Molteni stove, for $200,000,” Puck said, almost as if he could not believe what he had done.
“I couldn’t afford it myself, but…,” he said, his voice trailing off as hearty laughter rang out from the audience.
Puck is drawn to the sport. He worked as a ball boy at a tournament in his native Austria that featured midcentury stars, such as Rod Laver and Roy Emerson. He has been friendly with the current stars of tennis for years, and he said he once ran to a Whole Foods in Houston when Roger Federer requested schnitzel.
For the Indian Wells tournament, Puck has created tennis-themed dishes, including sorbet served in a ball-shaped shell of white chocolate. Warm raspberry sauce is drizzled tableside over the shell, which melts the components into one.
Steve Birdwell, chief operating officer of the BNP Paribas Open, said he wanted the food to make an impression.
“One of the goals was to make it notable,” he said. “You want a name—it’s not just stadium food.”
Referring to Ellison, Birdwell said: “We’ve got an owner that really loves tennis and is passionate about it, and he wants to have the best of the best. For us, that makes a big difference, and we’re excited that we have the opportunity to participate in it.”
The renovations have made the concourses of the stadium considerably more closed—and, perhaps, even claustrophobic, no longer the open-air celebration of desert air and mountain vistas they once were. But they did enhance the stadium’s standing as a colossus of the sport. At 16,100 seats, it has long had the world’s second-largest capacity of tennis-specific stadiums, behind only Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, New York.
Birdwell said he was not concerned about the growing amenities gap between Indian Wells and the other tour events, or about surpassing the luxuries of Grand Slam events, which have long been the wealthiest and most prestigious in the sport.
“You’ve got to run your own race,” Birdwell said. “Again, we’re fortunate to have the owner we have. He’s got some ideas and he’s got a style of his own, and it’s fantastic for us.”
Birdwell said the tournament had worked to ensure that the average family was not priced out, holding down costs of the lower-end tickets and offering alternatives to fashionable food.
“We know that in stadiums, the most popular food items are the items you’re going to get anywhere: hot dogs, popcorn, soda, pretzels, beer,” Birdwell said. “We have that.”
And a two-star Michelin chef behind the dogs.