“Fifty-one years [this] May,” said Maria Litwin of her marriage to Gregory Litwin, “Fifty-one years on May the twentieth.”
The seniors of Vladeck Houses, the Litwins included, were all smiles as they wait to be served their Valentine’s Day Luncheon in the Vladeck Resident Community room on 328 Madison Street. The room, humble in size and a faint yellow in color, had been transformed two hours earlier by diligent and dutiful volunteers who decorated the room’s otherwise unassuming walls with parchment paper and vegetable stamps, flower petals and vases of carnations.
As Adele’s “Chasing Pavements” played ever so softly in the background, senior Manuela Castillo looked peculiarly at the menu. “What’s burrata?” she asked her friends before waving down Bryce Shuman, executive chef of Betony.
“Burrata is a cheese that has a fresh mozzarella-like consistency,” he explained.
“See?” Castillo said, smiling. “You learn something every day.”
The affordable housing complex officially known as the Baruch Charney Vladeck Houses has been serving the Lower East Side’s need for low- to mid-income housing for decades.
“A lot of my seniors have been here since the development opened,” said Nancy Ortiz, Vladeck Resident Association President, who’s seen the public housing development evolve (along with its residents) over the 35 years she’s spent working there. “They’ve raised their kids here, their grandkids.”
The free luncheon, complete with professional salsa entertainment and surprise arts-and-craft gifts, would not have been possible without its mastermind organizer, freelance chef and caterer Danielle Rehfeld.
“Last year I had a wonderful Valentine’s Day,” she said. “I woke up feeling very blessed and very lucky to have my friends and so many loved ones in my life. This year, I wanted to do something on Valentine’s Day that was about love in a more expansive way,” she said, adding that she appreciates neighborhood’s mix of cultures and backgrounds.
“The community is made up of Latinos, Chinese, Eastern European, African American, just a very diverse and rich community here on the Lower East Side,” she said.
This is not Rehfeld’s first time giving back to the Lower East Side community. A few days after Hurricane Sandy, she and a couple of chef friends reached out to Ortiz, to cook for 500 Vladeck residents.
“It was a wonderful and impactful day,” Rehfeld said of the experience. “I thought about coming back down here so I called Nancy to ask if she wanted to do something on Valentine’s Day.”
Reaching out to her former colleagues at Eleven Madison Park, she asked Bryce Shuman and Eamon Rockey, Executive Chef and General Manager of Betony, Dan Jackson, Executive Chef of the MoMA Cafés, Angela Pinkerton, former Executive Pastry Chef of Eleven Madison Park and James Beard award winner, as well as Din Yates, renowned model and chef/owner of Cheeky Sandwiches to join in on the festivities.
“I’m always looking to do things for the community,” said Jackson, “This seemed like the perfect opportunity. When [Danielle] asked me to do it, it was kind of a no-brainer. She’s someone who’s always had her heart in the right place.”
“She’s awesome,” said Shuman, echoing the same sentiments, “I’m happy to support her. It’s a good cause.”
Of course, the day began with its set of setbacks. The doors to the community room were originally locked with the wrong locks. “It’s putting out the little fires,” Ortiz said, laughing. “I was still trying to get the locks off the door when everybody started arriving at 8:30[a.m.]”
Attending to the many unexpected hiccups that transpired, including 79-year-old Teofila Lopez, who dislocated her shoulder while reaching for her winter coat, Ortiz remained calm and collected.
The luncheon for fifty guests, however, began to fall into place after volunteers from the Seventh Precinct and PSA Explorer program arrived to help the respective chefs with their dishes.
As senior Thelma Jetter put it, “It’s nice to see people caring about the Lower East Side for a change.”
Despite the ten-to-one senior female to senior male ratio, all of whom did not have plans for the day, the event turned out to be a success. The three-course menu, beginning with a roasted carrot salad by Chef Dan Jackson, followed by a roasted chicken entrée by Chef Bryce Shuman, and a Chocolate Brownie Sunday by Chef Angela Pinkerton, were complimented with countless requests for restaurant addresses and cards.
It was ultimately Chef Din Yates’s buttermilk biscuits, though, that stole everyone’s hearts. Amongst the gifts bags, leftover buttermilk biscuits were taken home by the plateful.