Ten years ago, five or six new restaurants brought their food to a house in Brooklyn. Less than 100 people bought tickets for a tasting of the new businesses wares. More than $10,000 was raised for the Red Hook Initiative, a community nonprofit.
It was a success.
This year, tickets for the Taste of Red Hook are on sale for the Sept. 27 event, only this time, it isn’t in a house and there will be at least 50 vendors offering samples of beer, wine, spirits and of course, food.
Ben Schneider built and runs The Good Fork, 391 Van Brunt Street, Brooklyn, an eclectic “globetrotting” restaurant with “one foot in fine dining and the other in comfort food,” as he describes it. His wife, chef Sohui Kim, is the one who keeps the kitchen inspired.
Ten years ago, Schneider and his wife brought a pot of gumbo to the first Taste of Red Hook. This year, they will be sharing their own take on shrimp toast.
“It definitely has become quite an event,” Schneider said. “It’s always been well produced, and each year we’d see more and more restaurants and more from Brooklyn get added to the roster, and it’s grown every year. I think it’s something people really enjoy going to now.
“It’s still a benefit, but it’s something on the map and something on the calendar. It’s a chance for local businesses to hang out with one another, taste each other’s wares, and it’s become a little bit of a party in a good way.”
Since the vendors donate the food and drink, all of the proceeds from the Taste of Red Hook go directly to the Red Hook Initiative, which sends it back into the community, said Jill Eisenhard, founder and executive director of the Red Hook Initiative.
The Red Hook Initiative is a nonprofit that has been around as long as its fundraiser. It serves as an anchor for the community, providing after-school programs, summer programs, employment training and serving as a refuge in emergencies like Superstorm Sandy until government can provide relief.
Middle school and high school students are trained as peer mentors, researchers, community liaisons and even give presentations to government agencies like the Department of Education.
“Pretty much anything that is happening in the community, we are making sure the residents have a voice in what’s happening and are able to have a say of what’s going on in their own community and make sure their voices are heard on how their public dollars are being spent,” Eisenhard said.
Red Hook Initiative doesn’t just give to the community, it is the community, Eisenhard added. Of the 125 high school and full-time adult employees, 90 percent are from the community.
“Because we’re fairly small – our budget for the year is $3 million – we don’t have a lot of overhead, so really every year because we employ so many local people, $1 million of our budget goes directly back into the community through staff salary or vendor agreements,” Eisenhard said. “It keeps it very local.
“You have workers who can walk with extra money in their pocket because they don’t need a Metro card and they’re saving. They’re then spending that money locally because they aren’t leaving the community that often.”
And when a restaurant needs a dishwasher or someone to bus tables? Eisenhard said restaurants reach out to the Red Hook Initiative. And why stop at washing dishes? With the Red Hook Initiative’s chef training program, Taste of Red Hook ticket holders can taste the future of Red Hook cuisine.
With 8,000 people living in the second largest unit of public housing in the city, Red Hook West Houses and Red Hook East Houses, as a backdrop to new development and million dollar homes being built along the waterfront, Eisenhard said it is very much “Tale of Two Cities” that plays out in Red Hook.
For some, Taste of Red Hook is their debutante ball – their introduction to the Red Hook restaurants scene.
For Schneider: “Even though it has grown as an event, it still has that community sense that it did that first year when we did it at somebody’s house. It’s still an excuse for everyone in the community to see each other and break bread together.”