On Monday evening, more than 50 chefs, some traveling from as far as Chile, Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Puerto Rico, convened at Rockefeller Plaza for an open-air celebration of Latin American cuisine. They were gathered for the 31st Annual Chefs’ Tribute to Citymeals on Wheels, a fundraiser that supports Citymeals’ mission to deliver meals to homebound elderly New Yorkers. This year, the theme was “¡Qué rico!,” and the plaza was packed with an older, well-heeled foodie crowd that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Advanced Style Instagram. They mingled amidst flowing cocktails and beautifully plated dishes from across Latin America – bright, tart ceviche, meltingly soft cochinita pibil, and crackly chicharrón. But beyond a night of wining and dining for a good cause, the event also represented an opportunity for up-and-coming Latino chefs to rub shoulders with some of the biggest names in the culinary world.
Three days before the fundraiser, I sat down with three of these up-and-comers at Haven Riverfront Restaurant & Bar in New Jersey, to hear what what it meant to them to get tapped by renowned Chef Daniel Boulud – Citymeals’ Co-President – to participate in this project. After all, Boulud is a man who’s been described as “The Michael Jordan of French fine dining,” a chef who makes it rain James Beard awards and Michelin stars.
“I thought I was being pranked,” said Susie Jimenez, recounting the day she got the call from Boulud. Jimenez may be a familiar face to Food Network fans; she was The Next Food Network Star‘s energetic Season 7 runner up, and today works as a private chef in Aspen. Once an official invite arrived in her inbox from Boulud himself, however, Jimenez was persuaded that the man she’d spoken to on the phone wasn’t just a friend putting on a French accent. It was obvious she had to accept the offer, but first she’d need to build the right team in NYC to help her work her booth. That’s when she remembered Haven Riverfront’s Ibrahim Sanz, the Puerto Rican chef she’d met at a culinary festival on the island. A few phone calls later, Sanz and Jimenez had also recruited Mofon·GO’s Manolo López, a seasoned Smorgasburg-er, for their squad.
All three chefs have been making a name for themselves for a few years now, though they still seemed a little astonished to find themselves recognized by a food glitterati personality like Boulud. And though they all met by chance, they shared surprisingly similar stories of the personal obstacles they overcame to develop their careers. Susie, the daughter of migrant farmworkers who used to pick cherries and peaches along the West Coast before returning to Michoacan in the off-seasons, never dreamt she’d one day appear on TV or run her own catering business. Sanz told similar tales of hustle, recounting memories of his single mother, who got up at 5am every morning to make a two hour commute to work because the family didn’t own a car. “I lied about being 16 so I could get a job to help out,” he told me. López, meanwhile, worked three part-time jobs to scrape by while he was getting his fledgling business together at just 26 years old.
On Monday, their blood, sweat and tears paid off, as their booth was mobbed with people eager to try their dishes – including some of the star chefs of the event, like Wolfgang Puck and Boulud himself.
Below, check out some photos of evening’s mouth-watering offerings, as well as some names you may want to keep an eye on.
All photos by Itzel Martinez for Remezcla.