Five mornings a week a large truck bearing the bright green logo of the famous food-rescue organization City Harvest pulls into a loading dock on West 51st Street in Midtown. Drivers Alex Toro and Eddy Berdecia jump out and navigate a fluorescent-lit corridor that leads to their destination: a refrigerator on the other side of the unmarked basement entrance to the city’s only four-star seafood restaurant, Le Bernardin.
A floor above, the restaurant’s first guests of the day will soon arrive for pampering of the highest order: impeccable service, dazzling multi-course menus, wine pairings ($325 per person with the eight-course chef’s tasting menu) and ethereal desserts. To delight them, Le Bernardin’s 40 cooks extract the most delicate and succulent portions of the top-quality produce and fish used in chef Eric Ripert’s creations: tender hearts of celery or Japanese eggplant; tips of asparagus; little fillets of the meatiest, most flavorful parts of the 1,000 pounds of fresh fish delivered to the restaurant daily.
Chefs this finicky leave a lot of food on the cutting board, only a small portion of which will be salvaged for stock or other uses. Twelve years ago, the rest would have been destined for the dumpster. All that changed when Ripert—distressed by the contrast between the over-the-top experience he was providing his customers and the more than one million New York City residents who can’t count on steady meals—began donating all his leftover fish, produce, bread, pastries and prepared dishes to City Harvest.
“We are a luxurious restaurant, we used the best products, and 10 feet away from here—I’m not talking about 5,000 miles away in Kenya or Ethiopia, but just 10 feet away—there are people who are hungry,” says Ripert. He recalls, “leaving Le Bernardin at night after work, and seeing homeless people sleeping under the arcade next to the restaurant. I felt like, let’s do something.”
Ripert teamed up with City Harvest and has since become its highest-profile chef advocate, a board member and head of its Food Council, which counts 79 chefs, restaurateurs and other food professionals among its members. The organization specializes in the rescue and rapid distribution of highly perishable food, managing the logistical feat of annually transporting an estimated 27 million pounds of leftover food from all segments of the food industry to close to 600 community food programs throughout the five boroughs, feeding over 260,000 hungry people a week. Because the diet of the population it serves consists mostly of cheap, highly processed food, City Harvest looks for fresh, highly nutritious donations; it takes pride in the fact that 65 percent of food delivered last year was fresh produce.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Ripert was on hand to show off the dedicated Traulsen refrigerator (donated by a vendor) he uses to store City Harvest–bound leftovers. It sits next to the basement kitchen door, easily accessible to drivers Toro and Berdecia. He’s on his way to deliver a chocolate and banana cake by Le Bernardin pastry wizard Michael Laiskonis to his son’s sixth birthday party.
But first, Ripert, dressed in white chef’s jacket, jeans and sneakers, wants to promote the cause that has become his passion. He reaches into the City Harvest fridge and pulls out a large clear plastic bag of beautiful zucchini that have been stripped of their peel. Line chefs fry the strips at a very low temperature to retain their bright-green color and use the resulting chips as garnishes. There is braised pork left over from yesterday’s staff meal, some baked fish, fish trimmings and some almond and pistachio madeleines. City Harvest provides aluminum pans and plastic bags for easy storage; by the end of each evening, the fridge is full.
In addition to sending about 500 pounds of fresh and prepared foods to City Harvest a week, Ripert has pledged this year to donate $1 for every meal served at the restaurant and its adjacent private dining room, Les Salons. By the end of the year, says Ripert, Le Bernardin will have met its goal of raising $100,000 for City Harvest from this program in 2009. “It’s a phenomenal donation,” says Jilly Stephens, executive director of City Harvest.
“When restaurants were really struggling, Eric was looking for other ways to give back.” On top of that pledge, Ripert gives $1 to City Harvest for every copy of his latest book, On the Line: Inside the World of Le Bernardin, sold in the restaurant and $5 for every $45 three-course “City Harvest Menu” lunch sold.
“What I like about City Harvest is that it’s very concrete,” says Ripert. “Here you have food, you can see it, you can touch it, it goes in a truck, the truck stops 10 blocks from here and the food is given to someone.”
Regular donations from Le Bernardin have helped earn Broadway Community, a food pantry in Morningside Heights, the moniker “the four-star soup kitchen.” Michael Ennes, who is in charge of food services projects and culinary training at the agency, says his last batch of fresh Le Bernardin vegetables went into a Moroccan harira soup and lamb tagine, to mark both Rosh Hashanah and the end of Ramadan. He admits he’s had to look up a few items from Le Bernardin before preparing them, such as the six pounds of cooked morels that arrived one day last spring. “I felt guilty because I suspect they were overcooked just a trifle, and I hope nobody got fired over it,” Ennes says. He used the windfall to make a cream of morel soup with fiddlehead ferns.
Across town, Yorkville Common Pantry in East Harlem has fielded its share of donations from multi-starred restaurants including Le Bernardin. On a recent evening, a line of clients stretched out the front door in anticipation of a hot dinner. The City Harvest–supplied pantry serves breakfast five days a week and dinner three times a week (including brown bag meals from 7 p.m. to midnight for latecomers), feeding up to 400 people a day, says program director Daniel Reyes. Clients line up for turkey lo mein, applesauce, rolls, watermelon, a choice of juices and cheesecake donated from Junior’s. When Thompson sees a Latino client, he holds out a bag of jalapeños. “Most of our Mexican clients like jalapeño,” he explains. “They cut it up and mix it with their food, or take bites out of it with their dinner.”
Diner Jerrelle Wells, dressed in a crisp striped button-down shirt and a do-rag, pronounces the food “very good” and rhapsodizes about the “outstanding” barbecued spare ribs and chicken the night before. “That really raised the spirits.”
An engineer by training, Wells lost his job with the parks department and his apartment in the Bronx. He’s been sleeping near Riverside Church, but remains optimistic. “I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren it was rough and I survived. In order to get back up the ladder, you have to be healthy, and this place provides [the means to do] that.”
Ripert sees his link to this agency as obvious: He is in the business of feeding people. The celebrity chef, whose profile has risen even higher with his new PBS show Avec Eric, is aware of the influence he wields. To bring the organization as much visibility as he can, he carries a City Harvest bag with him to the Greenmarket and even on television appearances. On a recent segment of The Martha Stewart Show, says Stephens, Ripert walked onto the set with “a bag that said ‘City Harvest’ all over it, put it on the counter, and there it stayed the entire show.” Mandy Oser, director of strategic operations for Le Bernardin, says that kind of enthusiasm is contagious: “When you see [Eric] setting that example, you want to take that extra step, too.”
So Oser volunteered to teach one of City Harvest’s six-week cooking and nutrition classes for young pregnant mothers in the Bronx. Even though it meant taking off a half day every week, she says her boss “didn’t blink.” Using a curriculum developed by City Harvest partner Share Our Strength, Oser taught students how to cook simple, healthy dishes like smoothies and whole-wheat pizzas. Despite knowing she made only “a tiny impact,” she says the results were highly rewarding. “One of the girls said she didn’t like fruit or smoothies. But she came back after she had her baby and said, ‘My baby loves this.'”
Similarly, Le Bernardin sous-chef Adam Plitt took time out of his day to demonstrate how to make watermelon soup at City Harvest’s Melrose “mobile market” in the Bronx (City Harvest distributes fresh produce to clients regularly here and on Staten Island), while pastry chef Laiskonis put his services on the block at an April City Harvest fund-raising auction, along with wine director Aldo Sohm and celebrated cheesemonger Anne Saxelby. Their package netted City Harvest $10,000. Although his department creates fewer leftovers and some are too delicate to give to City Harvest, Laiskonis says that when he’s sizing up a perishable ingredient, “either the first or second question is, ‘Can we donate it to City Harvest?'”
Ripert’s efforts have saved countless New Yorkers from going hungry, even fed them in style, but that doesn’t keep the critics quiet. Stephens recalls Ripert demonstrating how to cook broccoli at the South Bronx mobile market, dutifully adhering to instructions to limit salt and fat in deference to the high prevalence of diabetes and cardiovascular heart disease among clients there.
“One woman took a bite and said, ‘It’s delicious, it just needs more butter.’
“Eric,” recalls Stephens, “took it extremely graciously.”
Nancy Matsumoto is a freelance journalist who writes about health, food, arts and culture. Her advice to other food-loving parents: Think twice before you introduce your 12-year-old to Kobe beef burgers.
Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell