When most chefs cook, they are representing their restaurants. When Feliberto Estevez cooks, he’s representing New York City.
“That is a challenge, but at the same time I see a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for myself as chef,” Estevez, the senior executive chef of Gracie Mansion, said in an interview.
Estevez has been at the helm of Gracie’s narrow but well-equipped kitchen since 2002, when he was hired under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It’s a big job: Gracie Mansion hosts thousands of New Yorkers a year. There are receptions honoring nearly every ethnic group you can think of, holiday parties for the press, or the City Council, or municipal employees.
On Friday, Estevez was busy preparing for a holiday party in honor of the city’s community boards. The guest list was around 500 people — too big a crowd to host inside the mansion, where the first floor is reserved for events and tours while the upper levels are home to Mayor Bill de Blasio and his family. The party instead was to be held outside, under a massive and heated tent in the yard of the mansion, which overlooks the Hell Gate channel of the East River.
Estevez was cooking outside, too, in a tent kitchen that was toasty despite the frigid weather. Neither the outdoor nor the indoor kitchen is particularly large — this is New York City, after all — and yet Estevez and his team can turn out food for hundreds.
“It’s about organizing yourself,” Estevez explained. “We have a breakfast for two guests, we have a breakfast for 10, we have a breakfast for 100 or 200 and so on,” Estevez said. “So it’s a matter of organizing yourself and making it happen. We don’t have the luxury to say, 'Oh we’re going to do it tomorrow.'"
The main crew at Gracie consists of four chefs, but they bring in extra help, depending on the size of the event. Estevez also leans on chefs from around the city to pitch in for receptions that involve specific cuisine — whether it’s for the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast that the mayor holds each year or for receptions in honor of New Yorkers of Dominican descent.
“We do that thanks to the partnership that we do with the chefs from those communities,” he said. “For me, it’s not just getting two pounds of meat and go to Google and look up a recipe on how to make the best guacamole or the best rice and beans.”
Just as other chefs help educate him, Estevez tries to educate others by participating in programs that allow him to work with school children in his own community at PS 132 in Washington Heights, where he helps fifth-graders learn about cooking and nutrition.
“It gives me a lot of joy, it gives me a lot of happiness to give back,” he said.
The job has changed over the years that Estevez has held it. Bloomberg famously chose not to live in Gracie Mansion, opting to stay at home in his own mansion instead. In 2014, de Blasio and his family moved into Gracie, the first residents since the Giuliani administration.
“We didn’t have a family living here, so the needs were different — and now we do have Mayor de Blasio and first lady Chirlane and Dante and Chiara living here,” Estevez said. “Before, we used to do events, and now we do events, plus the family.”
To help out, Estevez brought chef Paola Aranci on board in November 2015. She, along with another cook, runs much of the day-to-day of the kitchen, he said.
“I’m focusing more on the large community events,” he said.
In a bit of tortured titling, he is the senior executive chef while Aranci is the executive chef. There’s also a dishwasher, bringing the full-time staff to four.
“The mayor loves Italian food, so I think that’s a great help to all of us,” Estevez said of Aranci’s arrival.
While the mayor’s fondness for all things Italian is well-documented, Estevez said he and his family are just generally good eaters. “They love to taste food. They like to eat, and that makes my job a lot easier.”
So what if the mayor gets hungry and wants a midnight snack, or if he and his family have some downtime and want to bake their own Christmas cookies? Esteves said that the family has free reign over the well-appointed kitchen, which has two refrigerators: one for the family (they pay for the groceries) and one for events (the Mayor’s Office of Special Events raises money and seeks out donations to pay for that food, in addition to a small budget for open houses and staff events).
You might not know it was the mayor’s kitchen, save for a laminated press clipping from the night the mayor was sworn in, featuring his family smiling beneath the tabloid headline “Blas Hizzoner.” Next to it is a quote from the mayor’s 2015 State of the City address, typed on plain white copy paper: “My grandmother’s story — like most New York success stories — was not a fairy tale. She did not stumble upon success through luck or charm; she forged it with hard work and raw grit.” It hangs just atop a bowl of bananas, coffee beans secured in a zip-lock bag, and some avocado oil.
The kitchen isn’t huge, but it’d be a nice perk for any foodie who became mayor and got to use its appliances and the lovely collection of copper pots, spotted with the patina of good use, that hang high above a center island.
“I don’t think the mayor has problems reaching any of these pots,” Estevez joked.
Ahead of the community board party, Estevez showed off the steps of a simple but flavorful plantain salad — instructing on how to cut the tomatoes (lengthwise) and the red onions (in long slivers, so they’re easy for picky eaters to work around).
So after a long day of cooking on behalf of New York, what does Estevez like to eat when he heads home? He keeps it simple and classic.
“I live in Washington Heights, right in the middle of rice and beans land,” he said. “I have the opportunity to try different food from different cuisines — and nothing is so satisfying as a bowl of rice and beans with a little bit of gravy or salsa.”