Volunteering at the NYC Wine & Food Festival

22 Oct

On October 9th, I volunteered with the Urban Girl Squad at the NYC Wine and Food Festival. This was the first time I have volunteered at an event that wasn’t directly related to helping the community. Sure, the weekend raised over 1 million dollars for the Food Bank for NYC and Share Our Strength, which is awesome. But like it or not, I’d say 87% of the reason I signed up for this project was to put myself smack in the middle of one of New York City’s biggest food events. Just like many other people in this city, I’m a self-proclaimed foodie, and my friends can attest to the fact that I have most of NYC restaurant’s Zagat ratings memorized. Looking at, eating, and reading about food is how I spend a lot of my free time; so when I received an email from the Urban Girl Squad about their upcoming volunteer event, I signed up immediately. And it’s a good thing I did-the limited number of spots they had available filled up very quickly. Mental note #1 for next year…

When I first arrived on the scene at 9:30am on Saturday at 10th avenue and 13th Street, things were already in motion. Golf carts transporting chefs and sous chefs to the main tasting tent on Pier 54, volunteers getting briefed, gift-bags being sorted. At 10am, the event staff began pulling groups of volunteers and placing them at various stations: the Welcome Center, check-in table, handing out wine glasses for tasting, etc. The Urban Girl Squad group was supposed to be in the Grand Tasting Tent, which is where everyone wants to be: it’s where some of the city’s best restaurants throw down their best plate of food for the hungry, paying masses for four hours straight. As the number of volunteers dwindled around me, it became clear that not everyone was going to be put into the Tasting tent. I also reminded myself that I was there to volunteer my time for a cause, not gawk at food porn. So when the next staff member called out ‘I need 12 volunteers ASAP!’, I dutifully complied and raised my hand.

Turns out, this was the best decision I made all day (the worst being that I skipped breakfast on a day I would smelling and seeing delicious food for hours). The twelve of us were asked to walk over to the Tishman School Auditorium as fast as we could, because the culinary demonstrations were going to begin and there were only a few volunteers there to help usher in guests. Culinary demonstration? Who? What’s that? I was excited and led the pack at furious pace across town.

When we arrived, tasks were immediately assigned and as I took my position inside the auditorium, I realized what was going on. I was at the Whole Foods Market Culinary Demonstration auditorium, where 5 Food Network heavyweights were about to take the stage one by one, and hey, I’m right in front of that stage!

Alton Brown and a not-so-inconspicuous cameraman
Alton Brown and a not-so-inconspicuous cameraman

As guests filed into the auditorium, it was the volunteers job to make sure all of the seats were filled, bags were placed on the floor, and just generally keeping the peace. Not so hard. When the lights went off I made my up to the front of the stage area and off to the side with  another volunteer, where we got to watch the show. Alton Brown, now one of my favorite Food Network chefs, took the stage and basically did a food demo/stand-up comedy routine for 45 minutes. He was hilarious, and I was enthralled as he talked and cooked; I had never seen a cooking show live, I realized, and was able to smell the food as it cooked. Delightful. It ended too soon. But wait, there’s more!

For the next show, I switched jobs with another volunteer who had been directing foot traffic to the correct entrances. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t the only volunteer who had come (partially) for the food. After everyone was seated, I was reassigned to the balcony which was pulling double duty as a VIP section and camera vantage point for the Food Network crew. I was told to escort the VIP’s to the bathroom, exit, or anywhere else they wanted to go; in the meantime, I could watch the show. Lights, camera, Giada De Laurentiis! Lucky for me, none of the VIP’s needed a bathroom break and I was able to watch the Everyday Italian do her set uninterrupted.

The view from the balcony

After Giada’s audience cleared out, all of the volunteers gathered in the lobby again for our new assignments. Next up was Rachael Ray, so I took my lunch break. I would say ‘it was just lunch time, nothing against Rachael Ray’, but really, I just don’t like her, and I feel okay saying that because there are millions of people who love her enough so I don’t have to. Also, I was so hungry and the smell of Giada’s garlic was pervading all my senses. I headed over to the Tishman Cafeteria where volunteers were given a beautifully well-balanced selection of box lunches. I ate quickly so that I didn’t miss the next Food Network Chef: Guy Fieri.

This time, I requested to be put back on stage duty; I knew my time was almost up (my shift had actually ended an hour prior), and I wanted to squeeze one last glorious moment up front. Also, I’m a rockstar when it comes to diffusing difficult seating situations. I find it necessary to mention the slew of elements that accompanied Guy’s set and no one else: flashing lights, heavy metal music, sound effects, promotional aprons and various food items being thrown into the audience, and more open-ended tangents than I could keep up with.

After Guy wrapped up, I decided it was time to go. There was one person left, Paula Deen, whom I was too tired to wait for. After a full day of volunteering, I hopped on my bike in my brand new, bright pink Food Network t-shirt and went home to take a nap and dream of food.

Here are some mental notes I’ve taken for next year (oh i WILL be back):

#1: Sign up as soon as possible. Urban Girl Squad had about 30 spots, and they were filled within a day or two. Lucky for you, the Food Bank has another 950 or so spots that you can snag. They have shifts open all weekend long for over 1,000 volunteers; if you want to see a particular demo or tasting, you can probably compare and contrast the volunteer schedule with the Festival schedule, and sign up accordingly.

#2: Don’t skip breakfast. This is a food event where you can’t technically eat the food that paying guests are eating. It’s torturous if you’ve got an empty stomach.

#3: Don’t assume you deserve to get a tasting plate or goodie bag. It’s not nice to assume. After all, you are volunteering your time for the Food Bank, not to exchange for free stuff. Right?

#4: Don’t go crazy when you see a famous chef, whip out their cookbook you “happened to have on hand”, and ask for an autograph. You’re an employee of the Food Bank and the production company while you’re volunteering, and you’re expected to act accordingly. Also, if you keep your cool, you’ll be given more responsibilities, like stage duty!

#5: Don’t tell too many people. If word gets out that you can go to the Festival free while other people are shelling out major bucks, there won’t be any spots left for me and you.

SAVE THE DATE: Next year’s NYC Wine and Food Festival (Presented by Food & Wine Magazine and Travel & Leisure) will be on September 29th-October 2nd.


Goodbye for now..



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