NEW YORK >> Any sentence that begins, “Even for a small dinner for 100 guests…” is bound to claim attention.
That is how Feliberto Estevez, the chef at Gracie Mansion, describes his workday. And that helps explain why a kitchen that hasn’t been renovated in 27 years no longer serves its purpose very well, especially since many more events are being held at the mansion than when mayors and their families lived there.
These include an annual reception for 800 valedictorians and salutatorians from public high schools, along with their families and many of their principals, and an annual reception for 1,200 people around the time of the Puerto Rican Day Parade, when Estevez is joined in the kitchen by chefs from Sofrito or — in the past — La Fonda Boricua.
The kitchen is to shut down Sunday for a $1.4 million renovation. The project includes eliminating a mazelike layout in which one open refrigerator door can cause a traffic jam; installing more energy-efficient equipment; increasing oven and refrigerator space; and improving mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.
“It’s about time,” said Mitchel London, the chef for Mayor Edward I. Koch when the kitchen was brand new. London said a professional kitchen ought to be renovated after 10 or 15 years, 20 at the most.
New Yorkers will suspect that the renovation cost is being paid for out of the pocket of the man who doesn’t live there, but the word from the Gracie Mansion Conservancy, through Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s press office, is that it is coming from several sources, none of them identified.
The renovation has been designed by Studios Architecture and Petretti & Associates Construction Management, working with Drake Design Associates. Food for summer events will be prepared in a smaller outdoor kitchen.
The 1985 renovation cost $125,000. But Koch recalled that public financing made it tough even to buy a stove.
“City procedures required three bids,” he said. “Mitchel London told everyone that he could buy a stove on the Bowery that would meet specs, and at thousands less than any of the three bids. He was told: ‘Not possible, must use public bidding.’ So the city paid more.”
London spoke of the struggle to install an indoor grill in an existing chimney, while satisfying fire officials and preservationists. He confessed he’d developed a case of indoor grill envy when he saw one at the home of David Liederman, the David of David’s Cookies.
“If David has one, I should have one,” London recalled thinking.
The grill apparently hasn’t been used since Koch moved out, however, and efforts to open the flue proved fruitless. It’s used as an alcove to store a bowl of lemons. It will be eliminated.
What will not be eliminated are some sinuous wrought-iron side chairs — looking very much their vintage — that arrived in 1957 during a kitchen renovation by Susan Wagner. Her husband, Robert F. Wagner, was then mayor. The chairs were placed in a dining nook built out of an old porch. They’ve never left and will now be restored.
A picture in the Ladies’ Home Journal of May 1957 showed a 13-year-old Robert F. Wagner Jr. having breakfast with his mother, seated in those chairs. The caption noted that he and his brother “take an interest in government, and inside view of legislation at home helps their homework.” Bobby, as he was called, went on to serve Koch as a deputy mayor.
Susan Danilow, the executive director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy said, “The nook area is going to maintain its character: intimate, familiar.”
After all, a family is bound to return there some day.