Big-Name Chefs Hawk Street Food at Citymeals Benefit

For this year's Citymeals-on-Wheels benefit at Rockefeller Center, planners looked to food carts for decor and menu inspiration.

By Lisa Cericola June 9, 2009, 4:44 PM EDT

Food trucks at the Citymeals benefit

Photo: Jessica Torossian for BizBash

Street & Savory Citymeals-on-Wheels Fund-Raiser
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It's hard to turn a corner in New York without seeing a street food vendor of some kind, whether it's a classic cart selling pretzels or one of the new wave of sophisticated food trucks like Dumpling Truck or Van Leeuwen Ice Cream. Nonprofit Citymeals-on-Wheels used all forms of street food as inspiration for this year's “Street & Savory” benefit, which drew more than 1,000 guests to Rockefeller Center's rink and surrounding area Monday night.

Heather Gere, Citymeals' director of special events, said the theme was based on the rising trend of food trucks, as well as a nod to these budget-conscious times. “Nick Valenti and Gael Greene came up with [the theme] last fall. They were discussing what would be the right feel for the times—knowing that this wasn't the year for a theme that felt overly indulgent or rich. We had talked previously with [sponsor] Gourmet about ideas that centered around comfort foods and childhood memories, and eventually settled on this—because really, many chefs do draw their inspiration from classic street foods from their countries and cultures. And everybody loves street food! It seems to have become quite a trend over the last year or so, so we feel that we couldn't have done this at a better time.”

Sixty-seven food and beverage stations filled Rockefeller Center's upper level, downstairs gardens, Rock Center Cafe, and the Sea Grill. Most chefs created high-end takes on the street food concept: Michael Psilakis of Anthos handed out mini roasted pork shoulder gyros, Joe Ng of Chinatown Brasserie served steamed watercress and shrimp dumplings, and Andrea Ruesing of Chapel Hill, North Carolina's Lantern made hand-shaved snow cones with strawberry syrup, dried strawberries, and lychees. Some restaurants, including Nobu, served food out of actual metal food carts, while real food trucks, including Treats Truck, Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream, and the Red Hook food vendors, were stationed along the upper level.

One chef even set up a dining room on the street. Instead of a traditional tasting station, Park Avenue Summer created a kitschy setup where guests could sit down at a table for a three-minute meal picnic—a timed five-course meal that included tea sandwiches, pickled vegetables, potato chips, and a blueberry pie-like dessert by chef Craig Koketsu.

David Rockwell and his team at Rockwell Group handled event decor and production again this year, blending decor elements inspired by New York City streets with more elegant touches befitting the $600-and-up ticket price. There were round hanging lanterns made of Greek key coffee cups, a large bar with metal panels reminiscent of a food cart, and colorful signage with illustrations of hot dogs and Champagne glasses.

The combination of the decor and food gave the event a more relaxed, informal feel than in previous years. The dress code was “summer cocktail attire,” and guests dressed casually—some in jeans.

Although sponsorships did not suffer a major decline, Gere said Citymeals was extra cost-conscious this year. “One of the big money-saving decisions this year was to switch to disposable serving pieces, which happen to fit perfectly with the theme. Paper cones cost a lot less than ceramic bowls,” she said. “And in an effort to be green, Fiji Water [provided] recycling bins for the event. We also made much more of an effort to market the event through email and online media, rather than relying on a huge invitation mailing. We certainly still sent out invitations, but a great deal of our communication has been via email.”

The event raised about $735,000 for the nonprofit, which delivers meals to homebound elderly New Yorkers. Another success? Unlike the past few rain-soaked years, the weather remained pleasantly breezy and dry.

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