A Chefs Deliver Run with Citymeals on Wheels Reveals the Stories Behind the Benefits
[Note to Subscribers: Toqueland has been a bit dormant recently as I’ve had to focus on an imminent book deadline, but I wanted to share this experience I had a few weeks ago. – AF]
Last month, Citymeals on Wheels staged its annual summer fundraising gala at Rockefeller Center. It was a breezy, temperate evening, and the Chefs’ Tribute to Citymeals on Wheels (as the event is officially known) boasted the mix of high-wattage chefs that has been a hallmark of the occasion, and organization, since not long after Gael Greene and the late James Beard founded it in 1981, inspired by a newspaper article about the homebound elderly. Since then, Citymeals on Wheels has delivered more than 50 million meals to those stranded souls throughout the five boroughs.
The Chefs’ Tribute is one of the charity’s flagship fundraisers, along with the Power Lunch for Women held in the fall (2016 will mark the 30th anniversary), and there are other events throughout the year, such as this week’s dinner at the about-to-shutter The Four Seasons. As with most charities, these happenings are the face of the organization, and the only interaction most of us have with them. We buy our ticket, or affix our media credential, and eat, drink, and socialize. Miss the obligatory comments that take place at some point in the evening, often with the speakers fighting a losing battle over the din of celebration, and you might forget what cause you’re there to support in the first place.
My friend, Bob Grimes, co-president (with Daniel Boulud) of Citymeals, had been after me to see the other face of Citymeals by going on a food delivery run, and I took the occasion of this year’s benefit to arrange to shadow some chefs participating in Chefs Deliver, a program hatched by Boulud and board members Charlie Palmer and Drew Nieporent a few years back to get chefs involved not just in the preparation of food, but also in the delivery of meals.
And so I met Charlie and chefs from a handful of his restaurants at his Aureole on West 42nd Street one hot summer morning to go on a food run. The participating toques were Jennifer Day of Upper Story by Charlie Palmer, Adin Langille of Charlie Palmer Steak at the Knick, Ryan Lory of Charlie Palmer Steak NY, Jeffery Russell of Charlie Palmer Steak DC, and Aureole’s own Marcus Ware.
When I arrived at Aureole, the chefs were packing four hundred meals up into rectangular, lidded plastic take-out containers and tucking them into produce boxes. These were no token meals, but thoughtfully prepared dinners, each featuring a protein, a vegetable, and a starch, ready to be warmed and eaten by the recipient. There were chicken fricassee with quinoa, broccoli, and potatoes; dry-aged meatloaf with sautéed mushrooms, mashed potatoes, and gravy; and panko chicken with ratatouille and sweet potato puree.
Most of these meals were bound for Staten Island (on weekdays, Citymeals’ meals are distributed from thirty-one centers throughout New York City), but a few were set aside for Charlie and his crew to deliver personally within walking distance of Aureole. And so we set out, the chefs in their whites, with a list of nearby apartments as our guide.
As we navigated our way through the touristy foot traffic of Times Square, I spoke to Charlie about Citymeals on Wheels, asked him why they initiated Chefs Deliver. He told me that he and his fellow Board members are constantly looking for ways to get the younger generation of chefs interested in Citymeals, and to connect with the heart of the charity; by the same token, Citymeals formed a Young Professionals committee in 2013 to engage and groom the next generation of leadership. (Charlie also told me, on a personal note, that all of his kids have been on meal deliveries.)
It was a revelation to me. With so many chefs involved in so many causes, it never occurred to me that charities themselves are, at some level, and for lack of a better word, competitive. They need chefs involved, not just for the meals themselves, but also for the crucial media attention those chefs bring. When Citymeals was created, chefs as public figures were just coming into their own in this country. Today, of course, there are countless chef-driven charities across the United States, and chefs themselves have become much more knowledgeable about the organizations they support, in many cases founding or co-founding their own not-for-profits. Charlie himself made a passionate, knowledgeable case for Citymeals, explaining to me how lean and efficient the organization is.
We entered a mid-20th Century, walk-up apartment building in the West 30s, climbed several flights, crowded our way down a narrow corridor, and knocked on the first door on our itinerary. A nurse answered and we stepped directly into the kitchen where Mary, a 92-year-old native New Yorker, was seated at the table.
“How are you?” asked Charlie.
“Depends which nurse is here,” she answered, cracking up the chefs, and the nurse.
The chefs filled the kitchen, visited with her. She revealed that she’s pretty much been in New York City her entire life.
“You ever been on an airplane?” asked one of the chefs.
“I was on the Roosevelt Island Tramway once,” she deadpanned. More laughter.
The conversation continued but my mind drifted. I found myself remembering my post-college years in New York City and how in every apartment building I lived in there seemed to be a homebound, elderly neighbor. There was my pitiful (save for the location) rent-stabilized one-bedroom on West 8th Street–at the time an arcade of discount shoe stores, African themed boutiques, and head shops–where my next-door neighbor was a frail, dementia-addled woman who I never once saw in anything but a nightgown. She’d occasionally catch me passing by and ask me to have a look at a malfunctioning refrigerator or check her mouse trap. Her brother, an artist, visited her on occasion and–I assume–brought her groceries.
A few years later, in a 6-story building on West 18th Street, there was a neighbor who was, I took it, a member of an orthodox Jewish family, some of whom we would occasionally spy coming and going. This poor woman would sometimes shriek that, “They’re tying to kill me!” so loudly that we could hear her in our apartment. It was convincing enough that we called the police, who found nothing amiss. I continued to see the family shuttle in and out, but in three years, I never once saw the woman herself.
It’s one of the great ironies of New York City life that so many people can live right on top of each other and remain total strangers. Since moving just upriver to Hastings-on-Hudson last summer, I’ve gotten to know many of my neighbors. We help each other out with kids and pets, and even keep an eye on each other’s homes when one of us is away on vacation.
But the city is different, and my food run with Charlie and his chefs really brought that home. We checked in on five people in all. Two were too shy for more than a few visitors, so I waited on the street. One, Selvin, was surprisingly vital, a retired Army sergeant and artist who showed off his work to us, grateful for the company as much as the meal.
Most of these people literally never get out of their homes. The rest of us walk beneath their windows and past their doorways. They likely hear us, but we never see them. They are among us but largely invisible, forgotten. As good as it was to meet them, it was also a bit overwhelming. After I left Charlie and his chefs, I found myself squinting up at apartment buildings, wondering how many other Marys and Selvins were up there.
When I first became immersed in the culinary scene, a friend asked me why so many chefs were involved in charities, specifically food charities. I thought about it for a long time and concluded that whether they realized it or not, they were getting back to the very core of what food is all about. Those of us who are fortunate enough to dine on, or cook, the most rarefied cuisine can easily lose sight of the fact that it’s not, on the most basic level, a means of self-expression or avenue to fame and fortune–as we generally experience and cover it–but an essential human need.
This morning brought that message back all over again. At a time when chefs are more celebrated than ever, when food is the stuff of competitions and festivals, Instagram porn and Facebook boasts, it’s one worth remembering.