October 3, 2011

Weekend Part 1: Behind the Scenes of the New York City Wine & Food Festival

On Saturday, I had committed to volunteering for the Food Bank… by assisting with their biggest fundraising event of the year, the New York City Food & Wine Festival! Two years ago, I volunteered at the Burger Bash – a Friday night event where chefs from all over the country came and put out their best burgers in an effort to win the popular vote and be crowned best burger. Longtime readers will remember that it didn’t end so well for me then. While I was lucky enough to have a burger made and personally served to me by celebrity chef Bobby Flay, I wound up getting food poisoning from something at the event and going home early to be sick… the night before running the Hartford Marathon. Oops! But I pulled out a successful finish nonetheless.

This year, I was disappointed not to get assigned a volunteer role at one of the food events. Instead, I was bummed to discover that I was going to be working at the bok signings at the park, across from the Grand Tasting. So tantalizingly close, and yet I knew that the access I’d be granted for the book signing wouldn’t help me at all with getting into the Grand Tasting. When I received my assignment, I considered canceling my volunteer slot altogether, but my friend Meg convinced me to just go and make the best of it, rightly pointing out that the volunteer work wasn’t about stuffing my face, but helping the Food Bank. I grudgingly admitted that she was right 🙂

When I arrived for my assignment, a large group had gathered. I was surprised – how many volunteers did they need helping out at a book signing? Turned out they needed volunteers to greet people, volunteers to manage the line, volunteers to take people’s names and put them on stickies to give to the celebrities so they’d know how to spell the names in the autograph, and… volunteers to hang out with the celebrity chefs and escort them to and from their cooking demos. Ooh, pick me! My hand shot up in the air along with one other girl’s, and we were given the roles of celebrity handlers. Cool!!! Over the course of the day, I got to meet/escort Alton Brown, Alex Guarnaschelli, Rocco DiSpirito, Aarti Sequeira, Melissa d’Arabbian, Jeff Mauro, Debi Mazar, Gabrielle Corcos, Pat and Gina Neely, and Andrew Zimmern.

We were given all access passes and taken across the street to the pier, where the Grand Tasting and cooking demos were being held. We had our choice of stages, and I chose the smaller venue of the North Stage, which had fewer big names BUT all the winners of The Next Food Network Star, which is one of the few shows on the Food Network that I watch regularly. I was going to get to meet Aarti, Melissa, and Jeff! Cool.

I quickly fell into a cadence that was a lot of fun. The star(s) and their entourage would arrive, and I would show them around the backstage area and get them whatever drinks they needed. The “backstage area” was actually a garage that had been kitted out with some Ikea couches/chairs, and a walk in cooler and food prep area to get everything set for the demos. But in addition to the little sitting area, the organizers had also brought in a trailer with bathroom, dressing/makeup area, and snacks – all the comforts of Hollywood 🙂 When the star(s) went on for their demo and their entourage headed out into the crowd, I now had 45 minutes of free time until they’d be back. While I could have watched their demo, I preferred to duck out to the Grand Tasting to sample all the treats!

I was surprised to see just how many wines there were to taste. I knew it was called the Wine & Food Festival, but I would put the ratio at just one food station for every five wine/alcohol stations – crazy amounts of drinking! I didn’t drink at all, because I had a job to do, but with all that alcohol, I was surprised to see the crowd as well-behaved as it was. There were definitely some glazed looks and crazy eyes, but no one seemed to be stumbling or sick. Classy crowd!

Me on the other hand? Not so classy. I flitted from booth to booth, sampling as much as I could… and nearly making myself sick in the process. By my third round of hitting the Grand Tasting, I think I had managed to try every food in the place (no small feat)! Unfortunately, this came at the expense of my comfort – my stomach ached from all the rich foods, and I longed to lie down and take a nap while my body digested. (No rest for the weary, though – I settled for sitting down to read a book backstage while waiting for the celebs to finish their demos). Furthermore, while it was neat to try such variety, but as I thought about the foods I had indulged on, I realized that there weren’t really any standouts. Everything was (obviously) mass prepared, but nothing was truly distinctive or memorable. Pity! I think a smaller event would have probably had higher quality/more unique food, but it was still neat to experience the signature event of the festival.

Besides experiencing the Grand Tasting, I also got a real insider’s look at the lives of celebrity chefs and how their demos worked. I was most excited to meet Aarti Sequeira of Next Food Network Star, as I loved watching her on the reality show and even tuned into a few episodes of her cooking show, Aarti Parti. She always seemed to convey a lot of food knowledge, but in a down to earth and nice way – like you were cooking with your best friend. Aarti also writes a blog with that same unpretentious tone, and I was relieved to find that she was just that sweet in real life. Furthermore, her husband Brendan turned out to be one of the warmest, nicest people I have ever had the pleasure to meet. While most of the stars’ entourages said hello to me and were cordial, Brendan went out of his way to make everyone feel special. On meeting him, I put my hand out for him to shake… and he instead pulled me into a big bear hug by means of introduction! That warmth pervaded all our interactions, and instead of doing his own thing and remaining aloof, Brendan went out of his way to make small talk with all of the staff and get to know them. (I suspect that Aarti would have done the same thing if she hadn’t been so busy preparing for her demo; as it was, she was still incredibly nice). When it started raining and we were having trouble getting enough umbrellas to bring Aarti, Melissa D’Arrabian, and Jeff Mauro over to their book signing, Jeff gallantly suggested that he didn’t mind going without an umbrella so that the women could stay dry, and Aarti said she too wasn’t picky since “it’s right across the street, anyway.” I loved that the three of them were reasonable, normal people!

While all of the stars that I worked with were polite and nice, there was one who was just a bit divalicious – though in a way that I thought was hysterical, not obnoxious. This particular star was very nice and normal for most of our interactions (though I didn’t know much about him/her beforehand so I had no pre-conceived notions of what s/he would be like). S/he brought the largest entourage of the day, but they seemed happy to just hang out and drink wine while watching the demo – no special demands or anything like that. The arrival and demo went off without a hitch, and the rain even stopped so I didn’t have to worry about getting enough umbrellas for everyone. However, about ten minutes before we needed to go across the street for the book signing, the star said a few words that sent everyone into a tizzy: “Why do we have to walk? Can’t we get a car over here?”

People, in case I wasn’t clear on this before: the book signing was across the street. Those familiar with the venue know that it is across the four lane West Side Highway, but there are stop lights and crosswalks all over that, and crowds of people were traipsing back and forth all day. We scrambled and managed to find an SUV to take the star across, but the trip was hilarious: get in SUV on west side of street, SUV drives down a block in order to turn around and come back, and then door opens to drop them off on the east side of the street. Perhaps this star should take some lessons from Aarti, Melissa, and Jeff!

By the end of the night, I was wiped out… though after an Illy espresso, I was back on my game. A “dance party” at my friend’s apartment helped ease the sickly feelings of gluttony, and we headed out for a friend’s birthday party in the meatpacking district. After a few cocktails, my best friend got a call from an ex who now lives in Morocco but was back in town for the week, so we traipsed off to meet her at a club… which turned out to be the biggest mistake of the night (yup, bigger than stuffing myself).

I am not a club girl, in large part because I hate the pretentiousness that goes along with that whole scene. I much prefer to kick back at a dive bar where you can hang out with your friends sans judgment. Unfortunately for me, tonight was pretty much the most judgmental night I’ve ever had out. After being on my feet all day long, I opted to wear flip flops to traipse around, and then carry a pair of stilettos in my purse to put on before going into a bar. However, when I tried to slip them on a few feet away from the door of the club, the bouncer called me trashy for doing so, and insisted I get away from his door (shades of that stupid etiquette class my company sponsored where they said it would be “horrible” to put your heels on at your desk in case an executive saw you on the elevator without them). We subsequently weren’t allowed into the club – the bouncer saying it was because they were closed, but me looking around and realizing that I was the only woman in tight jeans and heels as opposed to a tight 6 inch mini (guess I missed that memo). I was also a good 20 pounds heavier than any of the other women, and that’s 20 net pounds after you factor in the fact that they all had an additional 10 pounds of makeup on me. In short – really not my scene.

My friend’s ex (already inside) had a table with bottle service, and she came out to ask the bouncer to let us in… but he continued to refuse. While my friend tried to argue with the bouncer, I slunk away into a corner, knowing that I was the reason we couldn’t get in, and feeling pretty crappy about it. It’s funny – an entire day of dealing with celebrities, and no one put me down, but one bouncer thinks he can get all power trippy and put me down. Unfortunately, I let it get to me, and headed home feeling pretty darn miserable until I finally fell asleep.

On the bright side, I had a fabulous experience on Sunday morning, meeting some new friends at Urban Girl Squad’s running club. Stay tuned for my weekend, part 2!


5 thoughts on “Weekend Part 1: Behind the Scenes of the New York City Wine & Food Festival”

  1. Ugh I shudder to think what would happen if I tried to get into a club in the meatpacking district! I am the girl who always wears (cute) flats in the city and keeps some heels stashed in my desk at work. If they don’t want us, it’s their loss. We can go have more fun elsewhere!

  2. Future Volunteer

    Hi I want to volunteer this year, but it says:

    Tasting food, unless otherwise instructed *
    Drinking alcoholic beverages*
    *Note: You will be asked to leave if found participating in either of the above activities.

    1. I’m pretty sure they had a similar note in years past. However, the crew leads themselves said it was fine to taste and enjoy the food as long as we weren’t getting in the way of paying patrons. They gave us specific times when we could take a break from our duties in order to try stuff. Hope that helps, though I do realize it goes against what it says on the website!

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