By Louise Kramer
It Was A Hot And Humid Night In New York City And It Was Magic.
Close to 400 New Yorkers turned out July 23 for City Flavors, a unique tasting event on the High Line in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood where notable New York City chefs and culinary experts teamed up with successful graduates of a food entrepreneurship program offered to residents of New York City public housing.
Guests lined up to sample culinary creations reflecting the diversity of New York palates from sweet-and-spicy turkey meatballs and vegan mac & cheese to coconut cupcakes with Himalayan salt and pineapple upside-down cake, all to the beat of lively music from DJ Andre Cirilo.
“I was so happy to have my children there to capture some of the faces of the people when they bit down on my cupcakes,” says Denise Miller of Staten Island, owner of DAM That’s Good Cake LLC. “It was awesome just to be able to experience people coming in from all different genres and all different walks of life.”
The participants are graduates of the city’s Food Business Pathways program, a 10-week intensive business course that provides ongoing personalized coaching and free resources like permits and incubator space to help residents of public housing grow and launch their small-scale companies.
To prepare for the event, the food entrepreneurs were paired with mentors from some of the city’s top restaurants and food purveyors including Oceana, Maialino, Chelsea Market Baskets and D’Artagnan.
Sherri Royes, owner of Chef Sherri’s Catering, at first was concerned her mentor, James Kent, former executive chef of Nomad, would want her to make major changes in her proposed food for the evening. Instead, he encouraged her to focus on her favorite, chicken wings, and stood by her side to assist her as guests lined up.
“It was amazing telling a chef who is so well known what to do,” Royes says. “I knew my chicken wings were right and it was very exciting to see how much people liked them. There were people looking bashful who were coming back a third or fourth time.”
Bringing a product to market has many hurdles and winning over customers is one of the biggest. “I am praying that some great things come from this,” says Davis, a former cook for people with disabilities who has lived in public housing for most of her life and is pursuing a college degree well into her 50s.
The event struck a chord in the media.
- The New York Post featured Donna Davis, aka Chef Rootsie, who presented a vegan spread and was mentored by Chef Bill Telepan of Oceana.
- The Wall Street Journal interviewed Sandra Mathis of Grace Kelli Cupcakes, maker of the coconut cupcakes, whose company is named after her daughter.
- New York Metro interviewed Joann Poe of NYC’s Best Dressed Cupcakes, who was mentored by Jessica Weiss, a pastry chef with Union Square Hospitality Group.
- The New York Times featured Chef Cornel Robinson of Cornel’s Catering Company, who presented a corn medley served in lettuce cups at City Flavors. His mentor was Chef Ham El-Waylly of ESquared Hospitality.
This first ever fundraiser for the Fund for Public Housing brought in $48,000. Net proceeds will be used as grants to help fuel the businesses of Food Business Pathways graduates. From 2015 to 2017, 205 residents of buildings owned by the New York City Housing Authority and holders of section 8 housing vouchers have graduated from the program and 132 food businesses have been created. Some 90 percent of the graduates are women and all are African-American and/or Latino.
The event ran from 5:45 p.m. to 9 p.m. and well after that participants were dancing as they broke down their tasting tables.
Here are some day-after reactions:
- Susan Westmoreland, Culinary Director, Good Housekeeping – “There was palpable joy in the air. And the food truly represented the wide variety of food NYC loves today: from meat patties to barbecue to vegan cupcakes to banana pudding.”
- Ariane Daguin, D’Artagnan, mentor to Niani Taylor, Munch Hours – “The event was awesome. Raising money for underprivileged entrepreneurs and trying to accompany and mentor them is great! While we don’t know yet how much business it will generate for them, it was a very nice opportunity for them to get their feet wet, and to test their cooking skills, people skills and marketing skills.”
- Bill Telepan, Chef, Oceana, mentor to Donna Davis, aka Rootsie – “Working with Chef Rootsie was a treat. I look forward to being able to help her as her business grows, I think it’s important to be able to share ideas to help people become successful. “
- Clark Wolf, Food and Restaurant Business Consultant, mentor to Sarah Adams, West Indian Food – “This is a best possible practice where they can do this next to other people and see how they do it and learn from each other’s presentations and products. There was a lot of really good dancing.”
- Sandra Mathis, Grace Kelli Cupcakes, mentored by Daniel Dorado, Ililli restaurant – “It was an extraordinary event that I was humbly honored to be a part of. I got exposure to a larger audience that I normally would not have gotten a chance to connected with. It was a platform for greater exposure for my business hopefully opening doors for larger opportunities.”
- Cornel Robinson, Cornel’s Catering Company – “All the guests enjoyed themselves. It was a great event to get the company name out there so people can see and taste one of our dishes. We met a lot of people. 350 portions were finished in two hours.”
Chef Robinson’s Summer Corn Medley in Romaine Cups and all the city flavors sampled at the event were complemented by beer, wine, liquor, and non-alcoholic beverages, from such sponsors as Tito’s Vodka, Queen’s Courage Gin, David Bowler Wine, Doc Herson’s Spirits, TOST, GuS Grown-Up Soda, Spice Grove Roselle, and Sound Spark Tea.
The Food Business Pathways (FBP) program is collaboration between NYCHA’s Office of Resident Economic Empowerment & Sustainability (REES), NYC Department of Small Business Services (SBS), NYC Economic Development Corporation (EDC), Start Small Think Big, Hot Bread Kitchen, other kitchen incubators, REES zone partners and Citi Community Development. This free business accelerator program provides NYCHA public housing residents and NYCHA Section 8 voucher holders with a passion for food and a drive for entrepreneurship with customized training and resources to launch and grow their food businesses. Citi Community Development has spent approximately $500,000 on the program since its inception in 2015.
The Fund for Public Housing is a not-for-profit organization that invests in the well-being of NYCHA residents and their communities. It collaborates with public and private partners including the Food Business Pathways Program, to improve life for public housing residents. Its three main areas of investment are people, place and work.
“I don’t think we could have dreamed of a better evening,” says Fund for Public Housing President Rasmia Kirmani-Frye. “What I loved most is that the audience was equally made up of people who were there to support the Fund and believe in public housing and people who just love food events. This has taken the Fund and the food businesses to a whole new level of public consciousness.”
All involved see City Flavors as a “first annual” event. The event was spearheaded by Liz Neumark, founder and CEO of the catering company Great Performances, who helped establish the Fund for Public Housing’s Food Working Group. She also sits on the organization’s board.
Chef Robinson is looking ahead. “I believe the team should plan for next year. Whenever you need us we are ready,” he says.