features Hospitality One Step Further: Chefs' Charitable Outreach
Hospitality One Step Further: Chefs' Charitable Outreach
February 2010

Making time for charity work for folk in the culinary industry is a challenge to say the least. Working from noon until the wee hours of the morning, weekends, holidays, and sometimes every day in between doesn't leave a lot of time for sleep, let alone more work. Sometimes it seems that charity work is available only to high profile chefs with the staff and stature to devote time to things outside of the kitchen. But that’s not always the case. We talked to four chefs who make their charitable work not just an occasional donation, but a mission.

Making the time for good works is the greatest hurdle when it comes to chefs getting involved in a charity organization. Spare time is not a phrase typically bandied about in restaurant kitchens. But for Chef Andy Husbands (of Tremont 647 and Sister Sorrel – Boston) it's all a matter of planning: "I am under the belief that anything is possible with proper planning." For many chefs who devote hours to charity work, it’s a matter of making the time, rather than having the time.

Choosing the right charity is also essential. For Washington, DC Chef Barton Seaver of Blue Ridge, Sonoma, and the soon-to-open Diamond District Seafood Company, a prolific advocate of sustainable seafood, working with DC Central Kitchen was a natural extension of his sustainability pursuits and a way to get involved on a very local level. “As a DC native, I saw firsthand the opportunity they offered to create meaningful engagement with my own city,” says Seaver.

Central Kitchen is a community kitchen devoted to meal distribution to the needy, supporting local food systems and food-industry job training for homeless men and women. Seaver explains, “The sustainability arena for me is focusing on what human behaviors govern the way we interact with our resources. The Central Kitchen seeks to address the ways we relate to each other. It’s very much about sustainability... and creat[ing] opportunities and to utiliz[ing] the existing human resources.”  

For Sonoma Chef Duskie Estes of Zazu and Bovolo, schools are where she and her chef-husband John Stewart focus their good works. “Because I have children,” Estes explains, “a lot of our efforts are directed [toward] schools. We focus on school gardens, scholarships, extra-curricular activities. Now, everything we once considered basic is being cut in California—sports, libraries, trips, arts, foreign language.”

Chef RJ Cooper of Vidalia (Washington, DC) got hooked on working to prevent childhood hunger at a Chicago Taste of the Nation event by Share Our Strength Twenty-something years on, Cooper is now a national spokesperson and chair of the Culinary Council for the organization. Cooper focuses virtually all of his and his restaurants charity efforts toward helping children. “You choose what you’re passionate about,” he says, “for me, it’s all about children... for that five-year-old who’s never had a fresh apple before.” 

A fellow Share Our Strength devotee, Las Vegas Chef Carlos Guia (The Country Club at Wynn) focuses his good works on that organization, and has worked almost all levels, including as chair, of the Las Vegas Taste of the Nation events. Guia puts his charity work in stark terms: “Seventeen million kids are at risk of hunger in the US alone. In my mind, it goes beyond anything political or social—little kids don’t know any better.”

Wary of spreading themselves too thin and balancing their good works with their kitchen obligations, these chefs focus on working with a single organization or within a particular cause. Seaver believes that when it comes to charity work it’s quality over quantity: "I’ve chosen to really limit my involvement in other charities so I can actually participate full scale with Central Kitchen. I believe 100 percent involvement in one organization is better than many token gestures for different charities."

Cooper likes to get his staff involved and integrate the charity work into not just the kitchen processes, but also into the restaurant ethos: “You get your staff involved and you get everyone one on the same track.” Hiring or training like-minded staff not only relieves some of the burden for Cooper, but also primes the upcoming generation of chefs for continuing charitable efforts—a leadership role that he takes to heart.

“We’re in the hospitality industry—we must be hospitable and charitable,” says Cooper. As part of the Share Our Strength Culinary Council, Cooper spends time recruiting chefs and restaurants from around the country to get involved with the organization. Andy Husbands follows the suit: “I make time for what’s important, and as chefs we have to be teachers and leaders.” Well-known San Francisco chef Traci Des Jardins (Jardiniére) gives back by, as she puts it, “selling my celebrity to promote charitable events, sell auction items, [and] increase [the] profile [of the event].” But at the end of the day, it’s not about her image, but about giving back and setting a good example.

What’s more, chefs can bring a certain level of expertise to the organization or event, especially for those that are food-oriented. Seaver explains: “The chef can ask a non-profit: “How do you serve people? What’s your overhead? Where do you get your food from? What’s your labor structure?”” With guidance from chefs, Central Kitchen now purchases their produce from local farmers. “Literally DC soup kitchens, by way of Central Kitchen, are feeding our homeless and our hungry the very same produce from the very same farms that four-star restaurants [use].” It’s not only top-notch quality produce, but also supports jobs and farmers. “This is the kind of thing that chefs can really get into: deliver to non-profit agencies, those efficiencies you begin to develop in the restaurant.”

For Estes, when time is tight (between her and her chef-husband’s restaurants, sprouting a retail business, farm, and two kids) she makes sure to maintain her charitable contributions. “We give one percent of our sales back to local non-profits,” says Estes.

Carlos Guia enjoys the influence and insight that comes with greater involvement within the charity organization. “Being involved in an event is one thing. You can step back and not do too much. [But] to get involved in the organization is nice because you can shape the events, and see how they spend the money [...] and filter it through to local organizations.”

Both Husbands and Cooper have organized or hosted events under the guise of Share Our Strength. Six years ago in an effort to get more chefs involved and excited about charity work, Cooper started a Chefs on Bikes fundraiser event that he hopes to make bi-coastal in 2010 with an event in DC and San Francisco; Husbands hosts Operation Frontline in his restaurant annually with the help of chef-friends and volunteers from his restaurant. “To date we’ve raised over $135,000 in cash. That’s personal cash donated from my restaurant. I challenge anyone to match that,” Husbands exclaims.

Plain and simple, charity work is the right thing to do—it wouldn’t be called good works if it weren’t. But there’s more to it than that. Altruism aside, charitable outreach is also good for business and a chef’s image in his or her local and national community. Husbands sums it up: “What better way for [a chef] to get customers to [their] restaurant than getting people to taste [their] food. Put it in front of people and say, “if you like it, come see me.” To do charity events, just in the business aspect, it’s a great idea. Then, on top of it, how cool is it that I get to see my friends and have a glass of wine. And, on top of that, we’re doing a great thing.” Though Cooper warns that if you’re doing it solely for “getting X number of people to your restaurant” or for the “status symbol,” then you’re not doing it for the right reason.

Just like anything, sometimes knowing where to start in charity work is as hard as finding the time. Cooper volunteered for an event for the first time when he was a student; Guia had just moved to New Orleans and was asked to volunteer by Chef Susan Spicer when interviewing for a job with her. “She asked me to come and help. I got to meet twelve other chefs in the area, which was cool.”

To get a start, Guia offers this advice: “Ask around and see what events are in that city. There’s lots of opportunity. It comes down to doing some research or asking your chef.... It’s a great thing to get involved with and very rewarding—and you never know who you’re going to meet or come across.” Des Jardins echoes the same idea: “[You] just need to ask how to help. When [you] hear about events... call up and volunteer.”

For more hands-on work, Estes offers, “go to a food bank or a soup kitchen and work as much as you can. There are so many needs. Everyone has something to contribute. With just a day in a place, you will see that you can offer [something].”