Not all of the food Chef Eric Ripert is involved with serving is as exquisite as that of his three-star Michelin restaurant in Manhattan, Le Bernardin, or of Blue by Eric Ripert at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman. In fact, some of the meals he is involved with serving cost only 25 cents apiece.
For more than two decades, Ripert has been involved with City Harvest, a nonprofit organisation that rescues food and redistributes it to 1.2 million food-insecure New Yorkers. Ripert was one of the co-founders of City Harvest’s Food Council in 1997 and after serving for 16 years as its chairman, he stepped down in 2014 and assumed the role of vice chairman on City Harvest’s Board of Directors.
“We run an organisation that is funded with only private donations,” he said. “Our yearly budget is about $33 million and we distribute 61 million meals in New York City.”
City Harvest got its start in 1982 when a group of New Yorkers realised how much food was going to waste while large numbers of the city’s residents struggled to feed themselves. Ripert said that even now, statistics show that in the United States, up to 40 per cent of the food produced goes to waste. In New York City, however, much of what would otherwise go to waste is collected by City Harvest and then redistributed throughout the five boroughs of New York to food pantries, soup kitchens and other community partners.
“We also create mobile markets with fresh vegetables and fruits, we teach people how to cook with them, we have nutrition programmes and we provide breakfasts or lunches to schools for kids,” Ripert said.
The rescued food is stored in a large warehouse facility with freezers, refrigerators and storage shelves near the Queens Midtown Tunnel. The organisation owns 22 trucks and has more than 150 paid employees to facilitate its operations.
The food is rescued mostly from farmers, restaurateurs, supermarkets and wholesalers, although private citizen food drives are held a couple of times a year, Ripert said.
Sometimes, the food is rescued from unexpected sources.
“I can give you a funny example,” Ripert said, relating a story from many years ago about a boat in New York Harbor that contained a large shipment of bananas from Central America. The shipment of ripening bananas was delayed in clearing Customs.
“It finally arrived to the dock with a beautiful shipment of ripe bananas,” he said. “But supermarkets do not buy ripe bananas; they buy green bananas. So we had a line of trucks picking up all these bananas and we gave out a lot of bananas after that.”
Partially because City Harvest rescues its food, it is able to deliver meals at a cost of only 25 cents each. However, the low cost per meal is also a reflection of City Harvest’s operational efficiencies.
“City Harvest has been doing this for a very long time and is the biggest organisation worldwide doing this kind of thing,” he said. “The board is fantastic, the director is fantastic, the employees are happy and it’s a good organisation.”
For Ripert, his involvement is City Harvest is a way of giving back to his community.
“I don’t see myself living the life I live and running the restaurant we run without helping and having a huge impact on the community that is in need,” he said. “I think it’s about universal values — you share what you have in many ways. City Harvest is very meaningful and it makes a big difference in New York.”
In late April of this year, Ripert attended City Harvest’s annual gala fundraiser at Cipriani 42nd Street in Manhattan. One of the highlights of the event was the live auction, one item for which was a dinner for 20 prepared by Ripert and his Le Bernardin team at the home of the successful bidder. The exclusive dinner event also includes performances by John Legend and Yo-Yo Ma. That auction item brought in $1 million of the $4.1 million raised for City Harvest at the gala.
Ripert has offered this auction item several times before and keeps the value of it high by not offering to do private events otherwise.
“I do not do any other events outside La Bernardin all year long,” he said. “You can give me $1 million and I’ll say, ‘no.’ It happened last year and I said ‘No, you give it to City Harvest and you do it at the gala.’ For us to cook outside of Le Bernardin is priceless because you cannot get it otherwise, and then you have John and Yo-Yo Ma, so it’s something pretty special.”
Last year, at the 35th anniversary of the City Harvest gala, Ripert made an exception to his only once-a-year private dinner.
“Usually, when we reach $1 million (in bidding) we don’t bother continuing the auction because basically, the gentleman would be bidding against himself,” Ripert said. “But last year, there was a lot of action in the room because it was the big anniversary. When the bidding went to $1 million, everybody went ‘wow’ and clapped and the auction was basically over. Then someone raised his hand and said, ‘$1.1 million.’”
Someone then asked Ripert if he would be willing to double the offering.
“I said, ‘Well, if John (Legend) is willing to play twice, I’m willing to cook twice and if the person is willing to pay $1.1 million, we’ll do it twice.’ So we doubled the price at $1.1 million and raised $2.2 million last year.”