There are few events that command as much attention as the Annual Chefs’ Tribute to Citymeals on Wheels each summer in Rockefeller Center. And to mark the celebration’s 31st anniversary, more than 45 chefs, some traveling from as far as Chile, Colombia and Cuba, are preparing a variety of Latin-inspired dishes. Founding chefs Larry Forgione, Alfred Portale, Wolfgang Puck, Stephan Pyles, and Jimmy Schmidt, will be cooking alongside many of New York City’s top chefs as well.
The organization’s Executive Director Beth Shapiro is also celebrating a second milestone of her own, a decade of service to Citymeals on Wheels.
We’re celebrating two milestones this year, 31 years of the Annual Chefs’ Tribute to Citymeals on Wheels, and a decade at Citymeals on Wheels for you. How does that feel?
Beth Shapiro: [laughter] Ten years! It’s gone fast actually. It is… I suppose, for me a great celebration and an even greater one as we move into 35 years of Citymeals in the late fall. So I am a spoke in this big wheel, but very excited to be a part of this organization. I made the move from the for-profit world to Citymeals and it has been such a good move for me and I’m so proud of the work that the organization does and the number of people we’re able to help. Two million meals going out annually to 18,000 older New Yorkers. That and speaking to a 100% rule that 100% of all donations from the public go to meal preparation and delivery makes for a very proud, short history for me… long history for the organization.
I was going to touch on that. That 100% rule–has that always been there?
BS: It was mandated from day one. When Gael Greene, who you know is our founder along with James Beard, originally called the Department for the Aging in 1981, she and James Beard raised money over the one November weekend for what they thought would just be holiday meals. When they spoke to the Department for the Aging she said not a dime would go for even a phone call or postage stamp, which if you think at the time a payphone cost ten cents to use. And we still live by that. It’s been here from the beginning. I think it is a point of difference from other non-profits. Not simply here in New York, but across the country and the world, that it is in our blood and holistically part of what the organization is, that understanding. And I think it pulls a lot of weight with donors and potential donors to have such a clean understanding of where their money is going.
The founding members of Citymeals on Wheels, Gael Greene and James Beard–they’re not only important to this cause, but also institutions within the food world.
BS: Absolutely. They are both sort of beacons in the food world for different reasons. That’s where our roots are in the food world. And this event was originally conceived as a birthday party for James Beard 31 years ago. Unfortunately, he passed away several months before the actual event, but they decided he’d like nothing more than good food and a good party and the show must go on. Thirty-one years later, and the event has raised tens of millions of dollars from the chef community, those who cooked under him originally, and to this day restaurateurs and chefs who still understand the value of a simple meal, brought to the door, and what that can mean for someone who’s older and alone.
Tell me about what’s different this year and how you’ve gone about choosing some of the themes that have been past Citymeals on Wheels events.
BS: Sure. It is going to be an incredibly exciting year. We are celebrating Latino cuisine and culture and we have looked at other cuisines. We’ve done Italian. We’ve done Asian. Two years ago was “Summer by the Sea,” a real focus on coastal communities and beaches. And this just seems to be the perfect year to celebrate Latino cuisine and we are thrilled that we have star chefs from around the globe as well as those right here in New York, and some mainstay New Yorkers, long-term supporters of City Meals on Wheels, who are doing their take on Latino cuisine from Scott Conant and Jean-Georges and Daniel Boulud and Charlie Palmer, coming together with Jose Enrique from Puerto Rico, Josefina Santacruz from Mexico, and Carlos Cristobal from Cuba. It’s quite an array and just the food they’re preparing already. The menus we’ve seen sound delicious and we are very excited.
How long did it take to put something like this together?
BS: [laughter] A very long time! We started right when we finished last year. We really do. We met with Gael on Friday to start presenting ideas for next year’s theme. It really is an immense effort when you think about a theme, design, and reaching out to chefs. We have 50 chefs coming in this year. Letting guests know way ahead of time to save the date and where to buy tickets. It is I’d say a hard six months and a soft ten to eleven months out that we start mulling and coming together on ideas.
Are you allowed to give us any scoop on some possible ideas for next year?
BS: [laughter] No!
Am I allowed to press you on that?
BS: I can tell you menu items for this year but I can’t dispel next year’s secrets.
Well, I’m very excited and I’m looking forward to seeing you again. But before I let you go, what are some of the things Citymeals on Wheels is working on?
BS: When you look at the city and the landscape of the city, the recognition that elderly are the fastest growing population here in New York, as well as across the country, is our main focus right now. We have, as I said, 18,000 people we’re nourishing. Those numbers are going to continue to increase over the next 10 or 15 years. By 2030, old people will outnumber children for the first time in history. And we need to be prepared and ready to address that need. When you’re nourishing people who are 80, 90, or even a 100 years old, what do they need with their meal? Is their meal soft enough for them to eat? Are we getting enough food for them to eat to their doors? Those are the challenges and things that are top of mind for us. It helps to know that a thousand or more people are going to come together on June 6th to help us pave the way for future growth.
For more information on Citymeals on wheels, visit: www.citymeals.org