With a bounty of farm-fresh fruits and vegetables, bluesy live music, and rustic decor, Citymeals-on-Wheels' 22nd annual benefit—billed as “Chefs Gone Wild"—had a decidedly down-home feel. In spite of less-than-pleasant weather, about 1,200 attendees packed Rockefeller Center's rink and the area surrounding it on June 11, raising a record $1.2 million for the nonprofit.
Citymeals director of special events Heather Gere and her team of event production manager John Del Gaudio and special events coordinator Margherita Pilato worked with David Rockwell of the Rockwell Group to keep the focus on the farm but add a touch of glamour as well. ”[This year's theme] is about chefs supporting their local communities and using the freshest ingredients possible. We're also celebrating the farmers who are not often recognized for the work they do, which is integral to everything we eat,” Gere said.
Around Rockefeller Center’s rink and esplanades, planners set up 66 tasting stations manned by sponsors and so-called “wild chefs” from around the country who specialize in locally sourced ingredients, including Alice Waters, Charlie Trotter, and Dan Barber of New York’s Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Gere said the selection process began by developing a list of chefs who specialize in sustainable cuisine with Gourmet editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl, who took the stage to introduce the farmers and chefs with restauranteur Drew Nierpont during the event.
“We made a big list, then paired it down to our A list based on where [the chefs] were located, because we wanted to represent different regions of the country and types of cuisine,” Gere said.
Keeping with the theme, the majority of the chefs' offerings spotlighted fresh, local ingredients, like Kentucky bison pastrami from Michael Paley of Louisville, Kentucky’s Proof on Main, or Martha's Vineyard oysters with summer salsas, served by Joshua Hollinger and Steve Lewandowski from the Coach House in Edgartown, Massachusetts. Goat cheese and milk were the ingredients du jour, appearing in everything from main dishes like Portland, Oregon-based chef Greg Higgens's Chinook salmon and Juniper Grove chevre on pumpernickel to desserts like frozen vanilla goat's milk with strawberries and rhubarb by Claudia Fleming and Gerry Hayden of the North Fork in Southold, New York.
Rockwell and his team decorated the event with four truckloads of fruits and vegetables procured from New York City farmers markets in the early hours of the morning. Floratech created simple yet fragrant arrangements of herbs like oregano and dill. “We wanted to create an earthy and beautiful platform for the chefs,” Rockwell said. Planners also transformed Rock Center’s Rink Bar into the “Barn Bar,” where Audrey Saunders of the Pegu Club led a team of six mixologists (including cocktail catering company Cuff & Buttons), creating drinks that incorporated fresh ingredients like cucumbers and mint.
Although Rockwell clearly displayed his vision throughout the event, the evening's muggy, rainy weather was less than ideal for a partially open-air venue. Strong winds and rain started just after the general admission at 7:30, prompting many guests to abandon the uncovered areas of the garden and esplanades and duck into the Rock Center Cafe, Sea Grill, and tented portions of the rink. The evening's performers, Noah Bless Music, packed up their instruments and left the stage, and canned bluegrass music was piped in. Thinking ahead, staffers had wisely arranged oversize patio umbrellas in the garden near the Barn Bar so guests had a dry place to sip drinks.
Rather than running for cover, some attendees braved the raindrops and continued hitting up the stations, proving that it takes more than a passing shower to come between foodies and butter-poached lobster. Luckily, the skies cleared after an hour and the band returned to the stage for a loud, bluesy set that managed to get guests to put down their tasting plates and get on their feet.