By Shay Spence
Every so often, I am presented with a life-affirming reminder of why I decided to pursue my culinary career in New York City. One of these moments came late last month, when I was given the opportunity to be a culinary volunteer at the NYC Wine and Food Festival. Yes, the Wine and Food Festival. The Super Bowl of gastronomic delights.
In previous years, I have spent this same weekend glued to my twitter feed in a jealous rage, following along as my favorite celebrity chefs hobnob with each other, posting blurry cell phone photos of beautiful, unattainable plates of food all along the way. Why can’t that be me? I’d wonder, as I visited the festival website for the billionth time, hoping that, by some miracle, the price tag had dropped ten thousand percent.
Not this year, though. This year I was determined to get in on all of this glamorous action. When ICE sent me an email saying that the festival was looking for volunteers, I knew this would be the perfect opportunity to get my foot in the door, literally.
The day started off with brunch at The Standard Hotel, put on by NYC restaurateur and Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian. I arrived early and teamed-up with Executive Chef Eric Haugen of Zakarian’s upscale Midtown establishment, The Lambs Club. Along with his sous chef and one of his line cooks, I helped plate hundreds of chicken liver mousse quenelles with granola and finger limes.
It was actually my first experience tasting chicken liver—something I had been hesitant to try (read: entirely freaked out by) since childhood. Clearly, I’ve been missing out. Oh, and those caviar looking spheres on top (otherwise known as finger limes)? Finger-licking delicious!
From there, I rushed across town to Pier 94 where the main portion of the festival was taking place. I was assigned to work at the Bobby Flay “Tacos and Tequila” tasting event. Jackpot. For the event, I was paired with Big Gay Ice Cream to execute their service. We immediately got to work, and spent the rest of the afternoon setting up.
Although I’m much more of a savory than a sweet kind of guy, working with the guys from Big Gay Ice Cream was the most fun I could have possibly had plating for thousands of people for three hours straight. Plus, my right arm got super buff from scooping all that ice cream.
All in all, it was one of the more memorable days I have had since moving to New York. I got to shake hands with the likes of Geoffrey Zakarian, Bobby Flay, and Andrew Zimmern. I worked closely with influential New York City chefs and culinary figures. I made contacts and was offered trails, gained experience plating and executing service for thousands of people, and lastly, I made friends with fellow culinary student volunteers from across the region. These are the types of experiences you really can’t put a price tag on. Luckily, I didn’t have to!