“I seriously get why rich white people do this for leisure,” joked a soaked Daniel Holzman after leaving the court during today’s inaugural Celebrity Chef Tennis Challenge — a slightly competitive, more charitable-minded competition that ran in concert with New York’s Taste of Tennis. Holzman, a chef-partner at The Meatball Shop, joined a dozen culinary dudes at Chelsea’s Midtown Tennis Club to play in a heated (and quite sweaty) round robin style tournament that, as this spectator observed, proved that chefs do from time to time get out of their windowless kitchens to work on their groundstrokes. Case in point, François Payard, who showed deft touch with his Semi-Western backhand. Floyd Cardoz? Dude has a killer slice serve and played collegiately at the University of Mumbai.
“I haven’t picked up a racquet in 12 years,” said Cardoz semi-believably. On the surface, the statement seemed dubious, given the chef’s strong play and overall show of fitness. But it was likely the truth given the chef's curious choice of footwear — non-supportive low-tops that were a cross between a slipper and Samba Classic. Other participants included Kerry Heffernan, Marc Murphy, Jonathan Waxman and Alfred Portale.
“It’s become a passion,” said Heffernan, the event's host. The chef and TV personality was most recently a finalist on Top Chef Masters, but lately has been working less on his Quickfire and more on his tennis game. And it was all destiny from the swag gods. Three years ago he was given a racquet at a tasting event and decided that, instead of putting it on eBay, he kept the stick, started taking lessons, and would learn that game that he now plays often.
For the tournament, chefs were paired up in rotating teams of doubles and ask to play three 20-minute rounds of no-ad scoring. At the end of the time period, the total number of games won were tabulated for each team. At the completion of the three rounds, the top four chefs faced off in best-of-five-game semifinals and finals. This is the part of the story where Christian Pappanicholas takes over.
We’ve known the very likeable Christian Pappanicholas for a number of years. When we think of Christian Pappanicholas three things come to mind: Belgium beer, whole-animal cooking and tennis. The dude is a big-time tennis fan — if you stop by his Flatiron restaurant Resto while any of the four “major” tennis tournaments are taking place, chances are it will be on the bar television. But unlike some tennis fans who pledge allegiance to Gaël Monfils — but haven’t picked up a racquet since Wilson and the serve-and-volley were cool — Pappanicholas has got some game. We saw this in his semi-final match against Heffernan, where aces and strong net play led to Christian’s 3-0 victory. “I got smoked,” said a smiling Heffernan, leaving the court.
In the finals, it was North chef Eric Gabrynowicz (who had defeated Cordoz) facing his destiny against Pappanicholas’ strong serve. And although the end result was another 3-0 clean sheet, plus a free suit and ultimate bragging rights, for Christian, it was still a competitive final that had Gabrynowicz showing consistency. The Hudson Valley chef is a real grinder. There’s probably a food metaphor there or something? And speaking of food metaphors, the organizers served Ess-a-Bagels for breakfast. Thankfully, everybody in the house won a game or two.