When work forced Barbara Palumbo to travel to New York City on her daughter’s 10th birthday, the Atlanta-based watch and jewelry writer decided to bring her child along and turn it into a celebratory trip. She made big plans: Palumbo’s daughter Beatrice is obsessed with Hamilton, and the pair scored tickets to the hit show.
After checking into The New York EDITION, Beatrice set off on a Hamilton-themed walking tour with a family friend. Palumbo attended a work event, but she was interrupted by a text from her husband that said, “I need you to call me right away.”
“When he said that, I just thought, ‘Okay, something severe has broken loose,’” Palumbo said. She went online to check the news. A flurry of stories announced coronavirus-related cancelations, including the NBA and NHL seasons. She silently prayed that Hamilton wasn’t on the list, but discovered that Broadway was going dark, too.
“I stood there and started crying,” Palumbo said. “It was the day of her birthday.” Under rainy skies, she returned to the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star hotel to change for another work event, but first she made a beeline for the bar to unwind with a glass of wine. “I was freaking stressed out,” she said.
Mauro Cristian Aguilar, the hotel’s director of rooms operations walked by the bar. “My face just must have said it all,” Palumbo said. “I probably clearly looked like I was crying.” Aguilar looked at her, tilted his head and asked her if she was okay. “I went, dude, you have no idea what happened.” She then relayed what transpired.
“She knows every word to every Hamilton song,” Palumbo told him. “I don’t even know how I am going to tell this child that it’s canceled.” Aguilar texted Steven Florkiewicz, director of guest relations. “If anybody can make anything happen, this is the guy can make something happen,” he said.
“When she explained her daughter’s disappointment, I saw a great opportunity to create an amazing memory during an unfortunate situation,” Aguilar said. “I had recalled Steven’s artistic abilities, resourceful creativity and knew that he could execute something very special.”
Florkiewicz came to the bar and quickly bonded with Palumbo, since he also has a young daughter who loves Hamilton. They talked about sending a cake up to the room, but Florkiewicz hatched a secret plan before Beatrice returned from her tour. “I had about three hours to do something that I felt would be indelible,” said Florkiewicz, who previously studied art and design. “I immediately decided to draw a personalized Hamilton playbill with Beatrice’s name on it instead of Hamilton’s and replace the silhouette with that of an adolescent girl in a thematic dress.”
He ran to an art store, picked up paper and a frame, and began to draw with the materials he had on hand: EDITION color pencils, a pen and a Sharpie. Meanwhile, Aguilar went out in search of a cake, since one was not available on property.
Florkiewicz was able to finish the drawing, frame it and deliver it with the in-room dining team, along with a fluffy, patriotic-themed cake (strawberries, blueberries and white frosting) on a white tablecloth with a card that said, “Dear Beatrice, Happy birthday! This was drawn especially for you because of your love of Hamilton and music. We know one day you’ll blow us all away.”
“The last sentence of the card is a line from Hamilton in which Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton are singing to their newborn children about their bright futures,” Florkiewicz said.
Beatrice texted her mom a picture of the personalized gift while she was working. “I had to excuse myself and go to the bathroom at the event because I was again so emotionally taken by what was going on,” Palumbo said. “That was so above and beyond the call of…customer service.”
“My daughter crawled into bed holding the picture,” she said. “She curled up and she had it under the covers with her like a stuffed animal.” “This was unlike anything in any hospitality arena that I’ve ever experienced — whether restaurants, hotel stays or airlines,” Palumbo said. “To have the man draw it himself, go out, get the paper, clear his schedule, create this thing, get a frame, have it framed. It was just extraordinary.”
Feeding the Hungry
When chef Eric Ripert temporarily closed his Five-Star restaurant Le Bernardin on March 13 to help curb the spread of COVID-19 in New York City, he made another thoughtful decision: he donated all of the food in the kitchen.
His charity of choice was City Harvest, NYC’s largest food rescue organization. The group collects 66 million pounds of food each year and delivers it for free to hundreds of food pantries, soup kitchens and other places throughout the city’s five boroughs.
“We have a long-term relationship with City Harvest,” the renowned chef said. “We give them food on a daily basis usually.”
When the restaurant shuttered, some of the remaining vegetables, fruits, breads, sweets, meat and seafood were given to employees, but most of it went to City Harvest to be redistributed to shelters, Ripert said.
And while that gesture alone is generous — especially given that shelves at local grocery stores have been stripped bare by panicked shoppers — Ripert aids City Harvest in other ways. He serves as vice chairman of the organization’s board of directors and volunteers at its mobile markets, which are farmers-market-type events where local residents in need can pick up fresh complimentary produce and attend cooking demonstrations to learn how to make healthy meals. The group hosts nine markets a week in different areas of New York.
The day after donating Le Bernardin’s food reserves, Ripert was at the South Bronx mobile market helping give out carrots, pears, cabbage, sweet potatoes and more to a trail of people pushing shopping carts.
“It is very emotional to see people lining up for two city blocks — it’s a huge line,” he said. “It was cold, and people were waiting for the market to open. It’s very tough to see such a situation.”
“But when you give the food to the people, they are very grateful, very happy, very thankful,” Ripert said. “I was happy to be contributing with the team to give those products to those people.”
Despite the coronavirus outbreak, he said that the atmosphere at the market was not different this week. But the market staff had to take some extra precautions, like putting food in bags, wearing gloves and keeping a measured distance. “We tried to be as safe as we could — usually, that’s not something we have to worry about,” he said.
If you would like to join Ripert in helping City Harvest’s efforts, donate here. And as for when you can expect his famed French restaurant to reopen, Ripert plans to reassess the situation in April. “This is obviously a national and international catastrophe,” he said, “and I think we have to show a lot of solidarity as much as we can at the same time also be very cautious of not spreading the virus. We have to be very disciplined and listen to the guidelines.”
Helping On The Front Lines
Sometimes heroes don’t wear capes. In the case of José Andrés, they wear heavy-duty face masks while helping to feed stranded passengers and crew on the Grand Princess cruise ship docked in Oakland. Among the 3,500 people on board, 28 were infected with COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Andrés was on the ground with his World Central Kitchen, an organization that began as a way to end hunger and poverty but morphed into a disaster relief group. Andrés and WCK have developed a reputation for swooping in after disasters all over the globe to make and distribute fresh, nutritious meals to survivors. The group also was in Yokohama, Japan, to aid the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which carried 696 people infected with COVID-19, eight of which resulted in deaths, the CDC said.
WCK’s reach extends beyond ships, too. It assisted Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, Guatemala after the Fuego Volcano eruption, California after multiple wildfires, and Colombia and the Venezuelan refugees. (To donate to WCK, click here.)
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the chef temporarily closed all of his ThinkFoodGroup restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area and New York City on March 15. He then reopened most of them on March 17 as community kitchens serving affordable takeout meals for people in need. For example, recent offerings at Jaleo in D.C. included a leek and potato soup ($6); green salad with citrus, manchego cheese and salmon ($8); and chicken with white rice ($12). The menus will change often, but a vegetarian and gluten-free option will be mainstays.
He took to Instagram to unveil his new repurposed community kitchens and got choked up as he talked about closing 27-year-old Jaleo and loving the big family at the restaurant. “We are going to go through dark times,” he said. “But let me tell you, in darkness sometimes you only need the light to illuminate the way. So, let’s hope for that light.”
“We are going to have to be in some parts of America in the forefront of providing relief to people that maybe cannot go to the supermarket, maybe to neighborhoods that are food deserts and people don’t have supermarkets…we are going to have to be thinking out of the box,” Andrés said. “Please be strong. We can change the world through the power of food.”