The Dark Side of Benefit Dinners: A Chef's Perspective
To try Sara's recipe for cold cauliflower soup with curried crabmeat, click here.
As people in the food business, we get bombarded with requests to donate our time and food to benefits. Benefits for cancer, benefits for the homeless, benefits for three legged dogs in China, benefits for the hungry (I always think it's weird to gorge yourself to help the hungry but hey, whatever it takes right?). It goes on and on. And fall is the height of benefit season, and it seems to have gotten excessive.
The idea used to be to throw a party, get some press for the cause, some press for the participating chefs and industry people, and raise some money. But there are some very dubious causes receiving money out there, and it's never clear how large a percentage of funds raised actually go to the cause being featured. Recently I was asked to do a benefit for Slow Food (really?). I am all for Slow Food, but I am not sure they need money as much as victims of natural disasters or terminal disease.
For me to participate in an event, I have to come up with amazing finger food that can be served in a setting with no running water, no heating devices, and no storage area.I was raised to believe in giving back to my community and to the general world community, and I believe in doing so. Some events I wholeheartedly endorse. Every year for the past six years I have participated in a great all-female event to support an organization called SHARE, which helps women with ovarian and breast cancer. The money really does go directly to the cause, plus I love that there's one night every year when most of the famously rare female chefs in New York gather under one roof. In the spring, I do the Taste of the Lower East Side, which benefits the Grand Street Settlement house, an organization that has been helping economically challenged residents of the Lower East Side since 1916. I love supporting the community I work in so directly.
Some of the so-called "benefits" I have participated in seem to be more about throwing giant, self-congratulatory parties. It seems like every time some terrible event happens, everyone gets busy setting up a benefit for the victims and at the same time making sure they get more press themselves. Before you know it, rather than talking about the awful situation in Haiti or Pakistan we are talking about what delicacies such and such restaurant is serving. I also question whether it is really the best thing for my restaurant and me to be a small line on some press release. Isn't it better for my customers and for me if I stay in the restaurant and cook? Isn't that what my business is about?
For me to participate in an event, I have to come up with amazing finger food that can be served in a setting with no running water, no heating devices, and no storage area. Increasingly I am being asked to bring 700 to 2000 portions of said food, which should also represent my restaurant, me as a chef, and maybe the democratic ideal as a whole. I have to prepare it in my restaurant (taking away resources from the day's normal activity), pack it up, haul it over to the venue, stash it under a table, and then reassemble it so it looks beautiful. In order to do this I need to bring one or two cooks with me (who need to be paid because they are not getting anything out of it) so I can stand there and smile and interact with people who have paid a lot of money to be there. One thing I learned early on was that however long it takes you to make the dish, the dish better be easy to serve.
At one of the first events I participated in, I made vitello tonnato, the Italian classic of poached veal layered in tuna mayonnaise. It was great in terms of the ease with which we plated it, but it looked absolutely hideous on the plate, even when artfully garnished with sprigs of parsley. Sometimes I do sfomato, a savory Italian custard that can be served room-temperature, made with whatever vegetables are seasonal. It is easily plated plus very elegant. One year I made ramp sformato. For three days my cooks and I sautéed mounds of pungent ramps and pureed them, mixing in cream and egg yolks and baked them off in rounds late at night when the kitchen wasn't being used. Needless to say after, three days of being smothered in the smell of ramps I have not really ever looked at one again.
For a while I did cold soup at summer events, which was perfect, refreshing, easy to make, and could get jazzed up with an elegant topping of lobster or crabmeat salad if need be. With the opening of Porchetta in 2008, though, all anybody wanted was for me to bring a giant roast of porchetta and make sandwiches at the table. It's pretty easy to assemble, but it's a huge amount of expensive product to give away. Which means I really need to pick and choose where I want to expend my energy. It better really benefit the charity and not just the organizers.
Recently I have been asked to show up with more and more portions, and then only half the portions I have been asked to provide are consumed. This leaves me with excess product that I often cannot reuse. That makes me really sad, and it makes me wonder why I don't just donate the money straight to the charity and cut out all the silliness along the way. I'd rather be in my kitchen making food in an environment designed for it and interacting with the customers, some of whom are there to see me. Making sure the people in my dining room feel warm and taken care of and want to come back rather than chasing some press that might net me a few new customers and might benefit a worthy cause (and they are all worthy—even the three legged dogs in China). And with the exception of SHARE and Taste of the Lower East Side, that is what I am going to do.