As his far-flung restaurant and hotel interests demonstrate, Charlie Palmer is as much a businessman as he is a chef—a fact that explains in part why he has long been a supporter of Citymeals-on-Wheels. After all, the New York City group, which Palmer chose as his beneficiary for the Robb Report Culinary Masters Competition, spends every penny from public donations on regularly delivering dinners to 16,500 homebound elderly citizens.
“I like how well it is run as a business and what it does,” Palmer says. “It is comforting to know that the money raised goes directly to the preparation and delivery of the meals.”
Citymeals was famously founded around Christmastime nearly 31 years ago by restaurant critic Gael Greene and the late chef James Beard, who were appalled by newspaper accounts of New York seniors going hungry in their homes during the holidays. In a single weekend, they raised $35,000 by telephone from their food-industry friends and then partnered with the New York City Department for the Aging, with the stipulation that every dollar be spent on the meals. They fed 6,000 people that holiday.
Palmer is among the chefs who keep the food coming. To date, the organization has put 45 million meals onto tables or trays across the city’s five boroughs. Last year, 1.8 million meals reached these elderly New Yorkers, some of whom were over the age of 100. Recipients are provided one meal a day. Every fall, before the onset of cold weather, they are given 12 shelf-stable meals for days when delivery crews are unable to reach them.
Citymeals operates in partnership with the Department for the Aging, but the nonprofit organization raises money separately from the government agency. The food Citymeals provides is cooked at community centers in various neighborhoods. Volunteers perform the deliveries, either on wheels or—thanks to Manhattan’s many walk-up buildings—on heels. The human touch makes a difference: Often the hands bearing a meal belong to the only person that the recipients see all day.
Since Palmer joined Citymeals’ board of directors in 1994, he has been involved in raising money for the organization by cooking at benefits. The events are an indispensable source of revenue in an economic environment that has seen increased competition for scarce charitable dollars. In 2009, when he reopened his renowned restaurant Aureole in a new location in Manhattan, Palmer raised $28,000 for the organization at a gala dinner that, of course, featured his signature scallop sandwiches.
Palmer or one of his chefs cooks at Citymeals’ annual Chefs’ Tribute fund-raiser, and he also contributes content to the Recipe of the Month newsletter, which Citymeals sends out by e-mail to generate interest in the cause. The charity’s founding executive director, Marcia Stein, fondly recalls the chef teaching a group of students how to use herbs instead of salt to reawaken palates dulled by age to the world of flavor.