By Lindsay Whelchel
In a realm of culinary delicacy known by chefs in the metro, the idea of hunger might seem pretty far away.
The food at trendy and delicious restaurants like Café 7 and The Museum Café, among many others, is plentiful. But the chefs in the kitchen understand that for far too many fellow Oklahomans, a meal is not a guarantee. Now, they’ve quite literally cooked up a plan to help.
For the 26th year, the Chefs’ Feast – a food and wine tasting event to be held March 28 at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum – will raise money to support the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.
“It’s a great event. The thing I like best about this event is that every chef really wants to participate. They put on a good show for the food bank, so it’s an important event for everyone in the community,” says Christine Dowd, chef and co-owner of Aunt Pittypat’s Catering. Dowd, who is co-coordinating the event for the third year alongside Chef Don Thiery of Market Source, works to help the event by mobilizing participation in the culinary community. She explains that the response from chefs who want to be involved is strong.
“It means a lot when you know that there are hungry kids, so anything you can do to help is always the best, and everyone does a great job with that,” Dowd says.
When you look at the numbers, many are sobering. One in six Oklahomans deals with hunger. One in four children struggles with not knowing where their next meal will come from. These statistics, according to the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, make Oklahoma the fifth hungriest state in the nation. But the food bank, a nonprofit organization that began 33 years ago, is fighting back with a few numbers of its own.
In the year 2012 alone, the organization distributed 42.2 million pounds of products to fight hunger in the state. More specifically, the organization hosts the Food for Kids Program, which acts as an umbrella for several initiatives targeted at providing meals for children.
Last year 13,500 students were fed through the Backpack Program, in place at 475 schools in 53 counties around the state. This program allows backpacks full of food to go home with elementary-age children, to ensure they will have food over the weekend. The School Pantry Program provides meals for older students, with a food pantry located at the school. Expanding from these are an afterschool snack and tutoring opportunity, as well as a host of family and senior citizen efforts.
“Our administrative and fundraising costs are less than 4 percent, so 96 cents from every dollar you donate goes back to our programs,” says Angie Gaines, director of marketing for the food bank.
Rodney Bivens, founder and executive director for the food bank, grew up in a food-insecure household. Gaines explains, “This really sets the tone for our entire organization. We’re always looking to do something better in terms of feeding more people, saving more money, doing something more efficient so we can help more people,” she says.
Hunger differs from many issues in that it has a cure.
“With hunger, there is a solution … it’s just the resources we’re lacking,” Gaines says.
Events like the Chefs’ Feast help to provide those resources.
“All of the proceeds from this event go to the Food for Kids programs. Last year we made over $115,000 after all the taxes and expenses were paid out, and our goal is always to make over $100,000,” Gaines says.
The benefits extend beyond recipients at the food bank to the chefs themselves, Gaines explains.
“From the chefs’ side, it’s really nice because some of the chefs say it’s their favorite event. Not only are they giving back to the community with something at which they are talented, I think the fact that we try to choose themes that let them be very creative.”
Dowd would likely agree to the benefits.
“It’s great for the chefs to be at the event because there’s a lot of communication with their direct customers, so they can actually recognize a face, have a conversation and talk about what’s coming up at their respective restaurants,” she says of the opportunity and adds that, “most chefs, are behind the scenes a lot. They’re not necessarily in front of the customer, so it gives them the opportunity to shake hands and participate on a whole different level.”
Dowd is quick to credit the friendly competition aspect of the event with adding to the fun.
“Oh, it’s very competitive. The chefs really want to try to outdo each other, so they put on their best show,” she says.
Each year, a Foodie Favorite is voted on and awarded a traveling trophy or plaque, along with good-natured bragging rights for the rest of the year.
Added to the already entertaining time are music, opportunity drawings and the theme to the evening. Last year featured an international theme, while this year it’s “television.”
For Dowd, that might mean TV dinner … “with a twist.”
“If you think about a TV dinner, you have to be able to take that idea of a Salisbury steak with macaroni and an apple thingy and update it, make it fashion-forward and trendy. So I think it’s really fun to be able to play with a theme.”
Chefs may go retro-style TV and do Hawaiian for “Hawaii Five-o,” or bring the “Brady Bunch.” The possibilities are endless. Every table at the event will have a different TV show, says Gaines. She adds that the night has also become a reunion of sorts for the culinary community. One chef even met his future wife at the event, and the couple had a baby by the time the following year’s Chefs’ Feast rolled around.
But the bigger purpose for the night is ever-present.
“People are very open and there’s a lot of sharing going on, which doesn’t necessarily always happen, but that event really does create a sense of community because everybody understands a child who is hungry,” Dowd says.
There are approximately 750 guests, 100 volunteers, and 25 chefs and restaurants participating each year.
Two weeks before the event, tickets usually sell out; but even if you can’t attend, Gaines emphasizes there are many ways to help fight hunger.
“Everyone can help, whether it’s donating, coming out and volunteering, or holding a food drive. The food bank is here for the community; without it we wouldn’t exist, and we wouldn’t be able to help people,” she adds.
The food bank has a volunteer center where last year 44,160 volunteers gave their time and saved the organization $2.4 million in labor costs, Gaines says. Since $1 can provide five meals to those in need, it seems the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma has found a recipe for success in battling hunger.
In this case, a pinch of help and a dash of hope are the perfect ingredients.
Tickets to Chefs’ Feast are $120 in advance, with patron tables offered at $1,400. For a list of participating restaurants and more information visit www.regionalfoodbank.org