Tips From the Man Who Keeps Mayor Bloomberg and His Guests Fed and Happy

Back in 1799, when what is now Carl Schurz Park was five miles north of the city, a merchant named Archibald Gracie built a country estate overlooking the East River. Over a century later Robert Moses persuaded city authorities to designate the house as official residence of the mayor, and in 1942 Fiorello La Guardia moved in. The taxpayer-funded mansion is restricted to official city business; only the mayor’s family and visiting officials may reside there, even for an overnight. So while it is has accommodated dignitaries from First Lady Rosalyn Carter to South African President Nelson Mandela, Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg set up bachelor pads elsewhere, keeping personal and professional separate as church and state. We’ve heard that watching the legislative process is like seeing sausage being made, so we caught up with Executive Chef Feliberto Estevez to find out if either happens in the kitchen.

Mayor Bloomberg came into office in January 2002, and I started in May. I’d worked for years at the Four Seasons, and when I heard about this job I got my resume together quickly. I always loved the history of Gracie Mansion and I love banquet events, and that is the main goal of this space. It puts the house to good use for city agencies and community groups to come together.

The mayor hosts all kinds of events and meetings here—he enjoys the variety of foods we make, and that we make almost everything in-house: scones, pound cakes and muffins for the tours and meetings. Summertime means lots of outdoor barbecues for city agencies.

Do you serve Gotham culinary icons, like cheesecake or Manhattan clam chowder?
We have cheesecake sometimes, but more than classic New York City food, we feature the traditional foods of the cultures that make the city what it is. For these cultural heritage events, the shops and restaurants that specialize in, say, Italian, Irish, Dominican or Mexican food send their best items. For Italian Heritage Day we have cheese and olives from DiPaola, tomatoes and mozzarella from Mike’s Deli, sopressatta from Biancardi’s on Arthur Avenue–they send a guy named Robert to slice the meats just how they should be; he comes with the sopressatta.

I hear you’re involved in teaching city kids about cooking.
Since 2004, we at Gracie Mansion have been participating in Days of Taste, a program that teaches kids where their food comes from and how fun and easy it can be to cook. Every year, 70-80 chefs each pair with a class. The kids visit the restaurant of the chef they’ve been working with, or, in our case, Gracie Mansion.

This project is near and dear to all the kitchen staffs’ hearts. Jerry (who also makes our famous cookies) arrives at 5 a.m. to start carving their PS Number (132 from my neighborhood, Washington Heights) into a pumpkin. The kids take a tour, then cook together before sitting down to a meal. We try and teach them that, even if it’s pizza, there are ways to make it healthier, and the kids always lick their plates. They love every minute of it. When you see their faces—and our staffs’ faces—all you can say is, it’s contagious.

Do you grow any food here at Gracie?
We have a garden on the grounds. We don’t grow much, but we do have eggplant, romaine and red leaf lettuces, Brussels sprouts, chives, sage, basil, mint and rosemary. It’s the first stop on the Days of Taste tour. We have them smell and taste the herbs with their eyes closed and try to guess what they are. I think it is very important for everyone to see the connection to the plants, how beautiful the herbs are.

You live in Washington Heights—what do you love to eat?
Rice and beans. I’m always looking for the best new rice and beans place!

Tea sandwiches
That’s what we use the English cucumbers for.

Indispensable Eggs
Eggs for breakfast—we have a lot of breakfast meetings—eggs for cookies, for egg salad sandwiches; you cannot live without them.

The Big Cheese
Today we’re serving Parmigiano-Reggiano from the Teilel Brothers. We hollow out the cheese round and that’s the bowl. That and some of the leftover sopressatta, and you’ve got staff meal.

Meetings feel like movies
Popcorn is one of the mayor’s favorite things. He has said it’s his greatest extravagance. We put out a bowl of popcorn when they do a PowerPoint presentation—and it works. They eat the popcorn and watch the slides. You grab one handful and then another, and then the meeting’s over!

The cookies are famous; we make at least 4,200 per week. We make oatmeal raisin too, but the chocolate chip cookies—people are looking right away for them—they’ve heard about them before they arrive.

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell