With a flick of his practiced wrist, Daniel Boulud sprinkled parsley over plastic containers of roasted pork loin, moving with a speed perfected by decades in the kitchen. His team of eight — all masked, all wearing gloves — formed a steady, quiet assembly line: one by one, they portioned out grilled zucchini, potatoes, and, finally, the pork, topped with thick gravy and parsley. “Each meal has a protein, a starch, a vegetable,” Boulud explained as I watched the crew plate 450 servings. These dinners would soon be distributed to vulnerable senior citizens across New York City — from Manhattan’s Greenwich Village to Elmhurst, Queens.
Boulud has lived and worked in Manhattan since the early 1980s, a period he characterized as “a party,” with a laugh and an eyebrow raise. For more than 20 of those years, he has partnered with Citymeals on Wheels, a nonprofit working to feed elderly and food-insecure New Yorkers. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in mid-March, Boulud made the tough decision to close all eight of his restaurants and shops and furlough his team.
But his charity work kicked into overdrive. He converted the Épicerie Boulud commissary, in the Bowery, into a prep kitchen for Citymeals, producing and delivering 5,000 dinners per week as the number of food-insecure New Yorkers doubled to nearly 2 million. All told, the nonprofit has sent more than 1 million meals to homebound New Yorkers during the crisis — more than 60 percent of whom are aged 80 or older and live alone.
On a bright morning in June, I walked 52 blocks downtown to meet Boulud at the commissary, where we discussed his work and the future of the city we both call home.
Jacqui Gifford: How did you get involved in Citymeals?
Daniel Boulud: "Chefs are often asked to support food charities through various festivals and fundraisers. About 23 years ago, when I closed my restaurant Daniel on 76th Street to move it to 65th, I did an event to benefit Citymeals. Right before we reopened in March of 1998, I decided to do a Sunday Supper, a late-afternoon dinner — again for Citymeals. We do the Sunday Supper every year, and in 2020 we raised a million dollars. That was five days before I shut all my restaurants."
Describe the impact of COVID-19 on your business.
"Shocking. I have never seen anything like it. It is one thing to have a region affected, or a country affected, but the world? We were one of the first restaurant groups to close in New York. It’s wild to have an operation with 800 people, and then suddenly shut it down — boom."
What is your schedule like?
"At the commissary, the team works six days a week. It’s one small part of the massive Citymeals organization. There are 29 centers like ours across town, in Staten Island, in Brooklyn, in Queens, which each function as catering companies, more or less. Today, we produce many more meals than we did before COVID-19, but it’s getting a little bit more stable. I go back and forth between here and Daniel, which is now doing takeout. I also used Daniel as a base to distribute food to some hospitals uptown."
What is it like to deliver food with Citymeals?
"Citymeals recipients love to see us. They are homebound, and often aren’t able to go to a restaurant, so we try to make tasty and well executed meals for them. There is also the Citymeals Emergency Meal Distribution Center in the Bronx, where people can go to get long-shelf-life meals. Seniors and homebound people need a connection; the program is a lifeline for them. Citymeals volunteers also do phone outreach to help individuals deal with loneliness. Volunteers make sure our recipients take their meds, see if there is anything they need, talk to them about everything and nothing.
Has this experience changed how you think about New York?
"New Yorkers are resilient. We didn’t realize the magnitude of the pandemic at first, but the fact that people wear masks and protect themselves — it feels safe. New York is a city that is built on business. It’s an engine, and to put all those cylinders in action again will take time. I don’t think we can get back to normal that fast. But I hope we understand the fragility and importance of our community after this, and appreciate things differently."
T+L Global Good is a new social-impact initiative in which our brand will partner with organizations that are driving change and taking steps toward a more just world. For information on how to support Citymeals on Wheels, head to citymeals.org.
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