ALBANY — The Capital District came together last weekend to celebrate the good things in life: food, wine, art and philanthropy.
The Albany Chef’s Food and Wine Festival: Wine and Dine for the Arts, three days of wine tastings, culinary seminars, chef and bartender competitions, culminated in a gala event on Saturday night where donors were recognized, an auction was held and diners who were dressed to the nines were served a six-course meal, paired with wine, by the region’s top culinary masters. Money raised by the event will go to support ten local art institutions.
“We have a solid core team that puts this together,” said Michelle Hines Abram, vice president of the event’s board of directors and one of its main organizers. Hines Abram has been helping to plan the event since it was first conceived by Donna and Chef Yono Purnomo in 2009 to raise money to help a struggling local theatre.
“I love them,” she said of the Purnomos. “They’re avid theatre-goers and Donna is on the board at the Capital Repertory Theatre which, at the time, was in big trouble. So Yono got the idea to do a food and wine festival and went to his buddy Todd Reichelt, who was the general manager Crown Plaza at the time, and they talked to Karen Smith-Sfara.”
The late Smith-Sfara was a well-known local wine representative and talented fundraiser and, together with the Purnomos and Reichelt, became one of the co-founders of the event. It was Smith-Sfara, whom Hines Abram called “a force of nature,” that suggested she become involved with that first festival.
An ex-ballerina-turned-classically-trained-chef, Hines Abram had been working as a luxury event planner in New York City before a career shift to the hotel industry brought her back to the Capital Region where she grew up. She was working at the former Crown Plaza as its food and beverage director when she was approached to help plan that first event. “We planned that first one in just three months,” she said incredulously, sitting in a coffee shop on Lark Street seven days before the 2016 Albany Food and Wine Festival’s opening celebration hosted by Mayor Kathy Sheehan at Albany City Hall on Thursday, Jan. 14. This year’s event has been in the works since last February and, according to Hines Abram, has required hundreds of hours of planning and preparation. “For a good part of the year, I spend about 40 hours a week on this,” she said of a job she (along with all the other organizers) does for free. Hines Abram, newly married, also owns a public relations company, does marketing for her husband’s business and still finds time to do fundraising for other philanthropic organizations.
“This year was a little challenging,” she admitted. Right after wrapping up the the Saratoga Food and Wine Festival in September, a formal press conference announcing the Albany event occurred in October just three days before Hines Abram and Tom Thibeault got married and went to Europe for their honeymoon. This was immediately followed by the first holidays spent with a new family, which then led right into the execution of a three-day event that required months of planning. Then on Sunday immediately after the Food and Wine Festival, she has plans to travel to Las Vegas for a week with Thibeault to represent his business at the largest Kitchen and Bath show in the country and, possibly, do a culinary demonstration. “After that, I plan on sleeping for a couple of days,” she says with a laugh. “Maybe a whole day at the spa.”
“Having a partner is great,” she said of her new husband, who she met through the festival when his company, Adirondack Appliance became a sponsor. (The business has since become the festival’s principal sponsor, donating tens of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise as auction items and competition prizes.) “He’ll tell me to shut down the computer when I need to. And I need that.” Her computer, on which she was up returning emails until 4 a.m. that very morning, she said, is a hyper-organized system of lists and files pertaining to all aspects of the festival. “You have your admin stuff, and your logistics stuff, your programming, your seminars and your chefs, and restaurants and bartenders and baristas. It just goes on and on. But it makes sense to me. I think my brain just works that way.”
“Michelle is a multidisciplinary artist and talented businessperson,” said Jeff Mirel, board president at Albany Barn, a beneficiary of the festival for the last five years. “That’s a rare combination. She’s a chef, she’s an accomplished dancer, she’s a mom and she’s a photographer. I just saw some of her photography and it’s phenomenal, I’m buying a piece. She brings a real refinement to what she does and so it’s not just that she’s a jack-of-all trades, but in the things she’s chosen to focus on, she’s really excelled.”
“I’m not a fan of saying you couldn’t have done something without something else,” he said. “But I can’t imagine how we could have done all that we’ve done without the support of Michelle and everyone at the Food and Wine Festival. They’re a great bunch of people. They started supporting us when we were still developing our main project and they really bought into and supported our vision.”
It was Hines Abram who connected Mirel with the fundraiser. “I met her at my wedding, where she was working with Mazzone, who we had hired. We wound up talking about the Barn and she said it sounded like a really interesting project and told me that she worked with this great Food and Wine arts fundraiser. I called her up after I got back from my honeymoon.”
Some of the work the Barn does is geared towards giving children the opportunity to learn about and create art, something Hines Abram says she has a soft spot for. “Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, from Cap Rep, has said it a thousand times,” she said earnestly. “If a child doesn’t see live theatre by the time they’ve graduated high school, there’s around a 97 percent chance that they never will. And that’s profound. STEM education is important, but so are the arts. They make us think differently and make our world more vibrant.”
Children’s programming, in fact, is one of the few requirements to become a beneficiary of the fundraiser. “We’re the most fair people in the world,” she said laughing. “Donna and I aren’t capable of saying no to anyone. And, while we like to have an idea what the money will be used for, it’s okay with us if they need it simply to keep the lights on. Arts grants for operational costs are very rare.” For that reason, she said, the festival has grown from four distinct events in that first year to the fourteen-event, three-day festival held last weekend on three floors of the Hilton Hotel in downtown Albany (former Crown Plaza and home to the festival every year).
In its first year, the festival raised $39,000 to bail out Capital Repertory. The following year, they added Park Playhouse and Albany Center Gallery as beneficiaries and raised $69,000. The third year was when Albany Barn became a beneficiary as well. After the fourth festival, Hines Abram said a cut to the city arts grant caused local institutions to scramble to find ways to continue operating. “So we said were going to do our best to make up for a portion of that. I think it was a cut of like $350,000 and we ended up doing $120,000 that year and were able to distribute that to eight beneficiaries.”
“We’re just a good bunch of people trying to help out,” said Hines Abram. “The festival board is great. Joe Culver, for instance. He never gets his praises sung, but he’s great. He keeps us all on track; I really can’t say enough good things about him.” Culvert, a senior vice president at NBT Bank, serves as vice chairman on the festival’s board of directors and is one of its founding members, along with Hines Abram, the Purnomos (Yono’s & dp an American Brasserie), Reichelt (Albany Marriott), Mary Jean Knowles (food & beverage consultant), Jeffrey Michaelson (Hilton Albany) and Dominick Purnomo (Yono’s & dp an American Brasserie).
In addition to wine and food tasting from myriad area producers, vendors, restaurants and accomplished local chefs and the array of culinary seminars and demonstrations, the festival this year featured a special butchery demo, a barista competition with artisanal doughnuts and a Woodford Reserve Manhattan competition, where top bartenders from five area bars competed for a chance to win a three-day trip to a Woodford Reserve Experience event in Kentucky before competing in a regional competition in New York City. The winner of that competition will have a chance to compete nationally in California and become the new face of the Woodford Reserve brand. George Fiorini, from Wellington’s at the new Renaissance Hotel in Albany, took the title this year from Speakeasy 518’s Emannuel Treski.
There were 11 headlining “signature chefs” who catered the gala dinner and worked closely with the festival. “Those guys and girls are the heavy-hitters who are well known for their talent as well as their involvement with the culinary community,” Hines Abram said. A winner was also chosen from an invitational live chef competition, a bartender from The Ruck won Saturday’s bloody mary competition, and six “rising star” chefs were honored after a selection process that lasted three months.
“That’s the wonderful thing about this event,” Hines Abram continued. “We’re not only supporting local arts, we’re also supporting local businesses as well as chefs and other artisans. We’re really covering a lot of bases.”
Early estimates place the amount raised at over $120,000, bringing the total amount of money raised in seven years to more than $660,000 for local arts. More than 3,000 people attended the 2016 festival and all 400 tickets to the Slider Slam event on Friday night and the 500-seat gala dinner were sold out. 2016 beneficiaries include: Albany Barn, Capital Repertory Theatre, The Palace Theatre, Park Playhouse, Albany Center Gallery, Albany Institute of History and Art, Albany Symphony, EBA Dance, Grand Street Arts and Upstate Artists Guild.
“Go big or go home,” said a smiling Hines Abram, who also does fundraising work for Yono’s Scholarship Foundation, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and has thrown events to benefit farmers still struggling after Hurricane Irene. She admits that she often takes on a lot, but says that she believes the work she does is important. “I try to work on projects that I think are going to add value to the community and help make our community a better place to live,” she said because I’m invested. I’m going to be here for a while.”