How the Rogers Cup caters to the players and their appetites

TORONTO — The salad bar is stocked with whatever topping you could desire. There’s a pasta bar — gluten-free option available — where your entrée is made to order. There are two choices of proteins – chicken or beef. There’s garlic bread, a cheese platter, fruit and desserts, to name just a few choices available at the buffet in the players' restaurant at the Rogers Cup.

Tournament organizers want Toronto to feel like home away from home for the players who travel from across the globe to play here. Part of that is making sure they are fed — and fed well.

Who makes sure that happens is Al Salomon, a man small in stature, but big in personality. His infectious joy shines through on a walk toward the tournament’s pair of kitchens — the central nervous system of this whole operation — as he greets his employees he sees on the way, showering each with compliments in each brief, yet friendly exchange.

For nine years, Salomon’s catering company Marigolds and Onions has been supplying the Rogers Cup with food for players and their teams, tournament staff, the fans, the media and more. Salomon employs a staff of about 600 to feed up to 150,000 people during the week-long event. It’s a massive job, which is why preparations start at least six months ahead of time.

“On a lot of levels we try to do the best we can for players, fans, sponsors, media everybody, as much as we can,” tournament director Karl Hale said. “Food is very important. It’s at the top of the list for the players. They talk about food at every event and here’s one of the best.”

Part of why the Rogers Cup is revered for its food is likely because Salomon himself will do whatever necessary to make sure everyone — players, guests, tournament staff — are happy. For instance, ahead of our scheduled interview in the Aviva Centre’s media room, Salomon was running late. The reason? He had driven back to his house to pick up some homemade chicken soup to give to a player who had mentioned he wasn’t feeling too well.

The man responsible for feeding the players and 150,000 spectators for a week every summer never says no.
The man responsible for feeding the players and 150,000 spectators for a week every summer never says no.

One day earlier, a player requested two ingredients — Himalayan pink salt and a specific type of olive oil — for his pasta that the kitchen didn’t have. Naturally, Salomon drove to the supermarket to buy them up. “I never say no,” he said.

“You want to accommodate them. They work really hard, the players,” he said. “We do whatever we can for them to have a really good impression of Toronto. And I’ve got to be honest, a very, very, very top player, his manager came to me and said, ‘this is like the best food on the tour.’”

The fifth-ranked Stan Wawrinka agrees the food in Toronto is “really good” and eats in the players' restaurant nearly every day.

“In general, it's a really, really good tournament here — here in Toronto and Montreal. They are a little bit similar. They are really doing a lot for the players. I think we are all happy to come back here,” he said following his 6-1, 6-3 quarter-final win over Kevin Anderson.

Over the years, players have become extremely health conscious, Salomon said. With the competition so fierce and the margins of error so slim in professional tennis these days, many do whatever it takes to gain an edge. Part of that includes diet, which is why many of the top pros employ dieticians and have specific meal plans. Canada’s Milos Raonic, for instance, doesn’t eat the food provided by the tournament, instead eating food that's prepared specifically for him. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic famously adheres to a gluten-free diet.

Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland reacts after winning a set against Jack Sock of the United States during men's third round Rogers Cup tennis action in Toronto on Thursday, July 28, 2016. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland reacts after winning a set against Jack Sock of the United States during men's third round Rogers Cup tennis action in Toronto on Thursday, July 28, 2016. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

Each year, the tournament does its best to meet individual demands. The top players, for example, have the opportunity to submit a list of specific items ahead of time to ensure the kitchen on site has them in stock, should they need them. Along with that, all the players have the choice of dining at the buffet set up in the private players' restaurant that overlooks Centre Court. Custom meals can also be arranged. And if a player wants to eat off-site, the tournament organizers ensure they're sent to the city's top restaurants.

“If Novak Djokovic wanted anything, we’d go to the end of the world,” Salomon said.

But despite the pressure players face, and the particularities they may have about their diet, Salomon is adamant that they’re “not at all” difficult to work with.

“They’re very particular with the food and sometimes you feel, ‘OK, this is a little bit crazy,’ but it’s the player, whoever the player is, and it’s nice, they’re so appreciative when you come in and there’s the food that they want,” he said.

So, you may be wondering what exactly do players eat?

Staples include pasta — Salomon estimates the tournament goes through hundreds, even thousands of pounds per year — chicken, beef and fish. Desserts or sweets are almost never requested, but the staff will prepare birthday cakes, should a player’s special day fall during the week.

Along with the customary menu options, each year trends emerge, said Salomon. This year, for example, grains like buckwheat, millet, quinoa are all the rage. On the other hand, some players have specific requests, such as one who asked for coconut water. Salomon got it “and I only have it for him,” he said.

The craziest thing a player ever requested? The finest caviar, said Salomon, who ended up serving the delicacy with little buckwheat pancakes, hard-boiled eggs, sour cream and shallots.

And it’s not just current players who are tended to, but former ones as well. Years ago, Pete Sampras attended the event and ordered a turkey sandwich. The chef, however, didn’t know whether he wanted hot or cold — so he got both. “He was so sweet,” Saloman said.

Feeding the guests in the private suites can also prove to be a challenge. Years ago, Saloman remembers there was a child in a box who refused to eat anything but pizza.

“It was Saturday afternoon. I got in my car. I drove to Pizza Pizza at Bathurst and Steeles. I picked up a few pieces of pizza and I brought it back to him,” he said.

Salomon, after all, never says no.

During the nine-day tournament, the days are long for the food staff. They work around the clock — deliveries are done during the middle of the night — and Saloman himself works till nearly midnight each night only to return the next day by 7 a.m.

There’s two kitchens on site: a hot one set up in a parking lot — that day more than a thousand hamburgers had been cooked there — and a cold one, located in the basement of the stadium, for prepping such items like salad, bread, cheeses and desserts. There’s also an industrial-sized dishwasher set up in a trailer to help with the clean up.

For Salomon, who aims to please, the whole event can be stressful, but knowing a job well done means everyone leaves feeling satisfied, makes it all worth it.

“When it goes well, it’s an incredible sense of satisfaction. It’s a really prestigious job. I mean, there are lots of caterers in the city of Toronto, but not too many could do this,” he said.