Taste of the Nation Charity Event Draws New York’s Best Local Chefs, Feeds Kids

Last night the charity Share Our Strength hosted Taste of the Nation, their annual culinary fundraiser as a means to help end childhood hunger. “We are here tonight because there are 16 million American kids who struggle with hunger,” said co-founder Debbie Shore. Since 1988 the foundation has hosted these yearly events in 30 plus cities and raised over $75 million, and frankly, given the number of top named chefs, bartenders, and restaurants that volunteer their time and ingredients, the organization makes donating money easy.

In New York this year, the two-story, four-room space at 82 Mercer was filled with delectable bites including: Old school Lobster Thermidor served by chef Aaron Bashy of The Water Club; the infamous fois gras and jelly doughnuts made by the boys at Do or Dine; a fluke cebiche from La Mar’s smiley chef Victoriano Lopez (plus his translator); and an amazing razor clam and fennel dish from Ai Fiori.

On the high-end-low-end spectrum guest were forced to ingest the comforting pickled beef tongue by the gang at Mile End, slices of a six-food wedge salad sandwich by chef Joe Dobias of JoeDough, and the most amazing savory cotton candy being whipped up by the adorable Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy. Oh the tragedy.

To wash all these treats down Eben Freeman shook up a delectable Melagrana Sour for Osteria Morini, Jeff Bell from the clandestine bar PDT poured a smoked cardamom-infused Mariner cocktail, and Employees Only whipped up a blackberry vodka drink. Hands down the most exciting drink being made came in the form of Booker and Dax’s Hendrick’s Rose, a sweet, fizzy cocktail that smoked.

Amid all the opulence, we can’t forget the real reason Taste of the Nation is held. After all, most people don’t think of American kids going hungry and in a place where many of us throw food away every day, it’s tragic that about one in five children in this country don’t get enough to eat. As the organization continues to fight this cause, they continue to give something to raise a glass of smoking pink bubbles to and I hope to see them again next year.

Industry Insiders: Jonathan Benno, Per Se Persona

Jonathan Benno, chef de cuisine at Thomas Keller’s Per Se Restaurant at the Time Warner Center in New York, on the downside of popular gastronomy, BMW motorcycles, and escaping the kitchen to make time for the fam.

Where do you go out when you’re off duty? Al di Là in Park Slope. It’s a husband and wife team I’ve known for a really long time. They do traditional Italian cooking, and it’s just a place that’s from the heart. She does the kitchen, and he does the dining room. It’s small and special. Either of Michael White’s New York restaurants — Convivio or Alto — because he has such a command of Italian cuisine, and he’s a really, really nice guy. Hearth by Marco Canora, formerly of Craft, and Paul Greco, formerly of Gramercy Tavern, is great because the place is a real labor of love for two guys who were at the top of their games at successful restaurants. They borrowed the money to open this little restaurant in the East Village, and they made it work.

How would you describe yourself? I’m a quiet, focused, disciplined, and passionate person.

How’d you get started? The turning point for me was the first time I worked at the French Laundry. I worked there about 15 years ago, during the first year that it opened. I started at Daniel where Café Boulud is today, then worked for Christian DeLuvier at the Essex House. I spent most of my time working at Gramercy Tavern for Tom Colicchio before I traveled to southwest France to work for Gilles Goujon at L’Auberge du Vieux Puits, then went back to the French Laundry for a couple of years before the opening of Per Se. In my mind, I always look at the French Laundry as the turning point for me.

Who do you admire in the hospitality industry? Thomas Keller for what he’s done for our industry and people’s perception of a chef/owner. Never mind the fact that he’s really set the bar for fine dining at the French Laundry and Per Se as well as Ad Hoc and other venues. Somebody said that he’s a “cook’s cook,” and after all the accolades, that sums him up best. Also, Danny Meyer, for what he’s done for American restaurants and service over the course of the past 20 years at Union Square Cafe. On so many different levels, whether you’re having the tasting menu at Gramercy Tavern or you put up with the lines at Shake Shack, these are two wonderful restaurants at both ends of the spectrum. I was fortunate enough to have worked for him for two and a half years at Gramercy, and it stays with me today.

Name one positive trend that you see in the hospitality industry. I think the downward trend in the economy affects restaurants at every level. You’re not going to see the Per Se’s and the Daniel’s open in the near future as freestanding restaurants. The trend is going to be towards more casual restaurants, and I hope chef/owner-driven small restaurants with a lower price point will make it for the next year or two until the economy comes back.

Negative trends? The use of chemicals in cuisine. There’s this whole molecular gastronomy movement. I object to the manipulation of food that’s been developing over the past couple of years. Even to take a carrot from the green market and juice it and then add chemicals to it to make beads or whatever — why use high-quality ingredients and corrupt them with chemistry?

What is something that people might not know about you? I’ve always daydreamed about being a BMW motorcycle mechanic.

Any non-industry projects in the works? My wife and I have a nine-month-old baby girl. So, they’re my projects out of working hours. I like to read, but it’s like stealing time, and so is going to the gym.

Industry Insiders: Comedy Queen Caroline Hirsch

Laugh Legend Caroline Hirsch of the eponymous Caroline’s on bringing the funny, luring tourists, and laughing off a recession.

Point of Origin: I was born in Brooklyn and moved to Manhattan when I was, I think, 24 years old and went to City College and FIT, which is how I ended up in retail. I was working at Gimbels, which was going out of business, so as market reps, we were out, too. Because I was collecting unemployment, I had a little time to look around. Then I kind of fell into this business, the business of comedy — it just happened. Bob Stigley just loved to go to a comedy club called Freddy’s on 49th Street, and before long, he and a couple of other friends wanted to open a cabaret. Bob decided to use a woman’s name for the cabaret we planned to open in Chelsea, and that was the start of Caroline’s.

As a buyer, you had to know what people wanted to buy, and it was the same with talent. We went for the best talent we could afford. Mark Shaman came in and played piano; there were some great stand-ups, and there was a lot of enthusiasm. But it just wasn’t happening with a young, hip crowd — and to be successful in this business, you need the 20- and 30-year-olds who go out a lot, unlike the 50- to 60-year-olds who don’t. It was the time when David Letterman had just gone on to television after Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. He was continually introducing a slew of young comedians, so every time somebody like Jay Leno came to town to do Letterman’s, he’d say he was playing Caroline’s. So by the seat of my pants, we won. I promoted things I liked, and because we didn’t have any money for advertising, we tried marketing and publicity with newspapers and television shows. We had people come in and review our shows. Comedians would get press by talking about the club.

When in 1987 Wall Street was crashing, we opened at the Seaport in April. It was one of Wall Street’s biggest depressions, but even in a recession, people have to laugh. When the CEO of A&E came to me and wanted to do a stand-up comedy show with a New Yorker, I produced the television program, Caroline’s Comedy Hour, starting in 1989. We stayed at the Seaport for five years and then came uptown. This is the best decision I have ever made in my business career. People walk up and down the streets around Times Square, they see a poster outside, and even if they don’t know the name of the comic, they saw that person on TV, and make a reservation to come in. The television show went on until 1995.

Occupations: I miss it and am working on another show now, but, meanwhile I’m producing new artists on DVD.

Not the Web? Actually, right now, Caroline’s is a site where people come to get information about the club, but this will be relaunched as more of a content site, and I’m working with a lot of people — talents before anybody else knows they’re talents — to get the job done. We’re working on a lot of stuff.

Any non-industry projects in the works? We do our fair share of fundraisers here that I support personally. We do a stand-up fundraiser every year in honor of Madeline Kahn with her husband to raise money to fight for ovarian cancer research called “Stand up for Madeline Kahn.” Another is for the Scleroderma Research Foundation, a big fundraiser in conjunction with the New York Comedy Festival, which I also produce. We do other work for charities who find that it costs so much to rent out space in a hotel — it’s cheaper to do an event with comics and me!

Are you funny? I have a great sense of humor, but I’m not funny. But I know what’s funny. You must be funny to be on stage.

Favorite Hangs: To unwind, I go out East to my house at the beach. I look forward to that, and go out for the long weekends in the summer. I don’t go to clubs anymore. We’ve been going for 25 years, where else is there to go? For me, it was a different world before I opened Caroline’s. We went to Studio 54, Limelight, Xenon, every single night. I don’t’ miss it. We had fun then, but I don’t miss the whole scene. Now there are a whole bunch of young clubs, but you have to understand that things have changed. There is no club where, at the stroke of midnight, you have to be! When I had the club on 8th Avenue, we’d go to Limelight afterward. Or we’d go to Mr. Chow’s for dinner, then to one of the clubs.

Industry Icons: All of the icons. I just didn’t want to be any of them. I didn’t want to copy anybody else. I just wanted to do it better. We didn’t have a club like Caroline’s when we started this one. We had showcase clubs where people came to try out material before they went to Vegas or Atlantic City. Jay Leno had an hour and a half of material, so I developed the club with an opening act for him, a lead-in. The people we have here are really professionals. Bill Bellamy is coming in this weekend, and he has a polished hour-and-a-half stand-up; it’s different than the showcase clubs. The caliber of entertainer who works the club is really, really funny, and I laugh at the same joke a hundred times.

Who are some people you’re likely to be seen with? Comics like Joy Behar and Susie Essman are girlfriends of mine, and I still see Carol Leifer, who is an executive producer for CBS right now, and of course, Judy Gold. Those are pretty much my girlfriends, and they all make me laugh.

Projections: The future is a big place. Now we’re partnering with Comedy Central after five years of doing the New York Comedy Festival. It will begin to air next year in a multi-year contract with the network. We have a wonderful line-up in various venues all over New York, from the day after the election, November 5 until November 9. For instance, I met Craig Ferguson many years ago in Montreal. He really took off on The Drew Carey Show and will be performing in the New York Comedy Festival at Town Hall, as will Joel McHale. Frank Caliendo will play Carnegie Hall, as will Kat Williams. Mike Mencia’s mind will implode at Avery Fisher Hall, where Brian Regan will also play. Sarah Silverman will be at the Hammerstein Ballroom. Tracey Morgan will be “Coming Back Home” at the Apollo on November 8 — and panel discussions will be held at the Paley Center with the writers of The Daily Show and Conan O’Brien’s show. And something at the 92nd Street Y to watch will be “We Have A Winner” with Lizz Winstead, who co-created The Daily Show.

What are you doing tomorrow night? I go to restaurants where people know you, usually in the neighborhood. I leave work and go to dinner at Buddakan tonight, and tomorrow I might try to stop by a new place in the neighborhood where L’Impero used to be in Tudor City, Convivio. Although Convivio is now a no-name restaurant today, Michael White is the chef, so it won’t be no-name for long.
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