We’re getting together with like-minded chefs and industry folks to throw down and raise money for gulf cleanup – visit the benefit’s web site here:
Last week, I spent a few days back home in Indiana, where my Grandma Melba was visiting from her old hometown in Florida. Grandma was born in 1920 in Stone Mountain, Georgia and grew up in Fort Myers, Florida before the tourist trade really set in. Since she was born in 1920, it’s always been interesting to me (more and more so as time passes) to hear first hand about the extraordinary times she has seen and the wisdom that comes with those experiences. I’m pleased to say she’s sharp as a tack at 89 and vividly recalls life during the Great Depression and World War II. Perhaps the only downside to my life as a chef is that I don’t have more days like the ones I was able to spend home with her last week talking about life and food when she was young.
During the course of our conversations last week, grandma let loose that she was deeply worried the these United States might not be able to pull together as her generation did in the face of such a great crisis as the Great Depression or such a challenge as World War II should such great misfortunes befall us today. I’m not sure that’s true, but I share with her the same sense that something is amiss, that our nation is suffering a stiffening bout of paralysis in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the housing meltdown, the Great Recession, and now this insufferable catastrophe upon one of the world’s great treasures – the Gulf Coast and its unique and beautiful ecosystems and wildlife, and the cities, villages, and communities that make their life there. The Louisiana/Mississippi/Alabama Gulf Coast has taken more than its share of hits during these last several years and I’m of the mind that this is a national disaster, that we need to face down as a nation.
I think grandma’s worry may be well placed, but while we seem to be in very difficult straights as a nation right now, we have to realize that we’ve tackled much greater problems in the past and emerged a stronger nation. We will pull through this like we’ve done so many times before, but we all need to do our part.
Shortly after Big Jones opened I met Sarah Stegner, a chef I had long admired since her days at the hallowed Dining Room of the Ritz-Carlton and on to Prairie Grass Cafe, her and George Bumbaris’ restaurant in Northbrook. After looking at our seasonal menu for Restaurant Kids’ Week, she asked me why she didn’t already know me, she thought we were of like minds and should have crossed paths before. I responded slyly that I tended to avoid chefs because chefs aren’t usually the nicest people. That was a very sly answer because while the chef you’re working for during a crushing Saturday dinner service isn’t going to bother saying “please” all the time, the truth was she didn’t know me because of the roundabout course I took to cheffing my own restaurant. After years working line, I moved into the front of house in order to gain more management experience and work directly with the public.
The fact is that chefs are a wonderful, rare breed of human being. Chefs have to have the passion and love of an artist but also have to be shrewd and calculating business people. You have to be able to take the hard line with a wayward staff member or purveyor, and at the same moment in time love your fresh shipment of morel mushrooms, tomatoes, or eggs like children. It’s been a truly humbling experience to associate myself with Chicago’s culinary community and exhilarating to be embraced by it. Contacting colleagues I admire and respect for their skill and dedication to ask for their help putting together a fundraiser for gulf cleanup was a little intimidating, but the outpouring of support for the Gulf Coast has been wonderful, and you can know that these folks love food, people, the Gulf coast, and their country.
As the BP oil spill unfolded, much talk ensued among chefs about doing something. We have special ties to that wonderful place and its abundance of delicious seafood. Having had such a great experience helping with a fundraiser Sarah organized last summer for Three Sisters Garden, and knowing Sarah knows the ropes better than I, I reached out to her, and it was a short matter of time before we had an outpouring of support from industry folks, not just chefs. I think we have a great event on the way.
The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum has generously donated its fees so that we can hold the benefit in such a wonderful space. Limelight Catering pulls grand events off every day and Rita Gutekunst is as always, invaluable in her contributions. Hall’s rental is providing equipment, tables, and such, and we have such a fantastic group of restaurants, chefs, food entrepreneurs, brewers, and distillers on hand that once again it’s humbling to be a part of it, this time being an organizer.
My partner Mark Armantrout got us up a web site in no time, and we found an ingenious non-profit fund-raising web site, Razoo.com which will allow you to donate directly to the charity of your choice. They will record your donation and send us a guest list so all you have to do is donate, then show up for great food and drink by these wonderful people, and the list is still growing:
Heaven on Seven
Prairie Fire & Prairie Grass Cafe
Kith and Kin
North Shore Distillery
Rare Tea Cellar
Death’s Door Spirits
Mana Food Bar
Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum