88 Days: All good at Taste of the Jets

Each day from now until Feb. 2, ESPNNewYork.com will take you inside the challenge of staging the most unpredictable NFL title game ever. There are 88 days to the Super Bowl.

NEW YORK, N.Y. -- Wayne Kostroski is in his element. The man who is the founder of the Taste of the NFL charity dinner series walks between the food stations, chatting up a chef or saying hello to a restaurant owner and old friend. He’s enjoying the party, but he’s also planning for the biggest party of the year on Super Bowl eve in Brooklyn.

“Do you know we’re adding a boat?” he asks.

More about that later.

Despite the Great Lakes inflection in his speech, Kostroski is like the mayor at this Soho loft space off a cobblestoned street where the Jets have set up their Taste of The Jets event on a Monday night in November. Fans pay up to $475 a ticket and get a chance to mingle with two dozen or so New York Jets, as well as general manager John Idzik and owner Woody Johnson.

The chefs set up the tables and donate the food -- shrimp ceviche or savory bites of gnocchi served with disposable wood-based sporks, and the proceeds from ticket sales go toward a Jets foundation.

I asked Michael Stewart, who owns Tavern on Jane and brought beef on a polenta disc smothered in a barbeque-tinted sauce, what’s in it for the chefs?

“It’s not about me,” Stewart said, “It’s about people who need.”

The money goes toward local food pantries, which was the initial inspiration behind Kostroski’s Taste of the NFL; chefs and athletes coming together to combat hunger. And there’s no shortage of enthusiasm when it comes to donating time and food to the event itself.

“I get upset if I don’t get invited,” said Harlan Social chef Stephen Lewandowski. He said his participation each year connects him with new customers for his Stanford, Conn., restaurant.

The event partnered with Saks Fifth Avenue, and custom suits were tailored for Jets from cornerbacks to lineman, who shifted uncomfortably in the snug dress pants. Each took a turn modeling his suit on a catwalk in front of the room. Nick Mangold, an event co-host, didn’t realize modeling would be part of his job.

“That wasn’t the first thought when I was drafted,” Mangold said. “But after a couple of these events it starts to flow a little bit more.”

Even focused rookie Geno Smith let down his guard, smiling on stage and chatting with a line of fans that snaked from his seat at the Tao food station. Smith said his mother was involved with local food charities when he was younger, and that will be part of the mission of a foundation that he is starting.

“To be here at an event such as this is remarkable,” Smith said, “to be able donate these proceeds to food banks and just allow kids who may be in need to have meals is very important."

“It’s a fun thing to come to,” former Jet Freeman McNeil said, “but when everyone walks away you have the satisfaction of knowing that someone isn’t going to go to bed hungry one night because of the money that’s donated.”

Kostroski and McNeil are old friends thanks for the wide receiver’s participation in the national event, held every year the night before the Super Bowl. The Taste of the NFL donates up to $1 million to local food shelters in NFL cities. Normally McNeil is paired with chef Shin Tsujimura from the famed Japanese eatery Nobu -- a coveted spot.

Each of the 32 NFL teams picks a chef and a player to represent them. Last year in New Orleans, the Saints of course chose Tony McPhail of Commander’s Palace, who prepared gilled Louisiana crawfish with Hennessy cognac-flamed winter mushrooms, creole cream cheese gnocchi, double truffles and spicy crawfish boil cream.

Hungry yet?

Thu upcoming pre-Super Bowl party on the Brooklyn waterfront, the 23rd annual, had capacity for 3,000 people until Kostroski added the boat -- a large VIP yacht that will create an additional dining space for guests with a few more food stations. Tickets start at $700.

The NFL allows Kostroski to use the league name and shield for the event. “It’s a huge platform,” Kostroski said,

It’s also a role that he clearly relishes despite the logistical challenges of space, food and then distributing funds to various organizations.

A book about the Taste of the NFL shows Kostroski photographed with players and chefs, as well as celebrities such as Ringo Starr, Jeff Bridges and former president Ronald Reagan.

The Midwesterner will be in New York a number of times before Feb. 1 to prepare for his night; on Nov. 15, another Taste event will be held at the New York Athletic Club.

After Monday night on Mercer St., Kostroski might have a few recruits for his other events. Jets DL Muhammad Wilkerson was enthusiastic after his first experience with guacamole.

“I play defensive line,” he explained, “so food is always going to taste good to me.”

Come back daily for more on the issues, logistics and personalities surrounding Super Bowl XLVIII.