Nick Ciccone

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Belmont Racetrack’s Triple Crown Chef

Chef Drew Revella is racing to prepare for Triple Crown crowds at the June 9 Belmont Stakes. (Photo by Nick Ciccone).

The June 9 Belmont Stakes will be Chef Drew Revella’s fifteenth at Centerplate Inc., which coordinates the racetrack’s restaurants and catering. But this year he is racing to prepare for a bigger crowd than usual.

Even with that cushion of experience and his yearlong preparations now coming to a close, there’s no telling what challenges 90,000 hungry guests might bring on the day of the event.

“There’s a love of that chaos,” Revella says. “It’s not like every other job.”

The third and final leg of the American Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes is the longest of them all at 1 1⁄2 miles. That, coupled with the fact that front-runner Justify, the horse that won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in May, has the potential to become the thirteenth-ever Triple Crown winner, makes it likely that the crowd at Belmont Park’s Elmont arena will be full.

Triple Crown years have a markedly different feel, Revella says, adding that he is not generally a horse racing fan. He said it was incredible when, in 2015, he saw American Pharoah cross the finish line and win the Triple Crown.

“I had one manager who worked with me over 10 years, she was literally crying in my arms because it was such an emotional experience to be part of something that exciting,” Revella recalls. “When you’re down on the track and you feel the horses run by, there’s a feeling you get that — it’s very hard to put words to it — but people know it who watch it.”

Such moments are rare, though. Catering executives and employees rarely catch a glimpse of the events they work.

“I’ve been [at the Belmont Stakes] for two years — haven’t seen it,” says Robert DiChiaro, regional vice president of Centerplate Inc., the event’s caterer. “I’ve worked Super Bowls, World Series, Stanley Cups, Final Fours — very rare that I’ve seen anything.”

He shrugs it off and catches the highlights the next day.

Revella describes working the event as a “near-death experience.” In a similar fashion to the horses’ circuit, Revella moves in circles around more than a dozen satellite kitchen stations, making sure everything is going according to plan. Food preparation begins about nine days before the event, but the bulk of the work can be done only in the hours before race day to preserve freshness.

Revella, 47, of Staten Island, might clock in as early as 2 a.m. during those last few days of preparations, coordinating with hired vendors to execute the menu he crafted specially for this year’s 150th anniversary. His primary focus will be catering to a VIP echelon of guests (nearly 6,000) who have paid as much as $1,200 for a premium experience.

“We have a very New York-centric theme this year,” Revella says. “We’re taking some old subway signs and displaying food on that, and there’s pictures of Old World New York.”

Some of the new menu items this year include Brooklyn-cured GMO-free pastrami, hot dogs, sausages and an array of other charcuterie. Revella aimed to source food as locally as possible, tapping Brooklyn-based Gotham Greens, which produces urban rooftop-grown lettuces that Revella will hand pick ahead of the event.

Revella, who attended culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., says he started cooking at age 6, helping out with the family business — a catering hall. He says he was “bouncing around in the kitchen throwing ingredients in soup kettles.”

Now, as a regional executive chef for Centerplate, he says he channels that fun-loving creativity into how he leads his kitchen staff. In a high-stress role such as preparing for the Belmont Stakes, he urges his staff to stay calm.

“Never panic,” he tells them. “There’s always a solution. And don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

After thousands flood Belmont Park for the big day, Revella says he will likely “fall down,” but come 8 p.m. he’ll start tweaking his ideas for next year’s event. And June 10 is a regular racing day at Belmont Park, which means the Centerplate team has to be ready to go the next day.

“We still gotta open for another normal day on Sunday,” DiChiaro says. “It’s organized chaos.”

Rev. Todd Bishop Delivers Church Unleashed

P.T. Bishop: Rev. Todd Bishop of Commack’s Church Unleashed evokes The Greatest Showman. (Photo by Nick Ciccone)

It’s 9 a.m. on Easter Sunday, and a few hundred people are talking amongst themselves while a pair of enormous speakers pumps a raucous electronic drumbeat into the main room of Church Unleashed’s Commack campus — a not-so-typical-Sunday at a not-your-typical-church.

While the smoke machines and colored lights are being tested, Rev. Todd Bishop, 45, who co-founded the congregation with his wife, Mary, in 2008, tells me in his office that he’s nervous, which is unusual for him.

“There’s a lot of technical components,” he says, referring to the production he is about to pull off — an Easter spin on The Greatest Showman, with Bishop playing a priestly version of P.T. Barnum.

The church is part of the Assemblies of God, under the Protestant umbrella, which touts more than 13,000 affiliated churches nationwide.

A few dozen young volunteers adapted portions of the musical to mesh with Bishop’s Easter sermon. He is technically in costume from the waist up — wearing a red trench coat with gold lace and a top hat, resting his hands on a cane.

His jeans are ripped at the knee and are part of his regular attire. Bishop, who was raised in Buffalo, says he felt disconnected from church as a child. His parents divorced when he was 2, and he is endearingly quick to reveal that, at times, he is still trying to please his absent father. The youngest of three boys, he says his relationship with God made him feel less alone.

“I would literally be downstairs with my G.I. Joe guys, and be preachin’ to ’em,” he says with a laugh.

Perched on top of a wooded hill in a residential neighborhood, with almost no front facing windows, the former site of Commack Jewish Center looks more like an abandoned warehouse from the outside. Nonetheless, people come from all over Long Island to hear Bishop preach.

“When they walk in, they’re going to get an experience,” he says. “It’s gonna feel like they’re at a concert on a Friday night.”

Liz Sartorio, a congregant and volunteer from Melville, says Church Unleashed is “the best-kept secret on Long Island.”

Others describe it as a place to connect with other Christians — a close-knit community that is somewhat removed from the chaos of day jobs, schoolwork and traditional friendships.

“It’s different than any other church I’ve ever been to, in my entire life. It’s more of a place — not only is it Bible-based — but it’s a place where you can find out who you are,” says Alex Coutrier, of Deer Park. “We’re all looking for something in life, we’re all looking to fulfill our purpose. And I feel like, here, I found out who I was.”

The first church was planted in Hicksville 10 years ago. The second, in Commack, was formed two years ago, and the Bishops just announced a third, planned for Garden City. Not only is that growth unheard of for the area, but so too is the church’s popularity with young people.

Part of the reason for that could be Bishop’s willingness to unpack current events occasionally during his sermons. After the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., for
example, he told the congregaion something to the effect of, “People have the right to bear arms, not arsenals.”

The turnout is a testament to how much the sermons resonate with congregants.

“People today are looking for spiritual leadership on some of these issues that they’re not getting,” he says.

That sentiment resurfaces in his Easter opener — a pre-taped video monologue in character as “P.T. Bishop” — in which he speaks candidly about feeling inadequate, but assuring the audience that God will always satiate. The hopelessness of the times, his insecurity, his fear of failure — it is present in Bishop’s sermon, but he is sure to speak warmly to everyone, as if they’re all in on his little secret.

“It’s a place to belong, much more than you have to believe,” he says of his creation. “Belief comes later.”