LA Chefs Dish Out Dollars for Charities

Susan Feniger

Susan Feniger | photo courtsey of Border Grill

by Leslee Komaiko

Twenty years ago, there were just a handful of high profile, annual food events for charity in Los Angeles. Now there’s a food centric charity event happening nearly every week in town, sometimes multiple events. A few on the horizon: UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Taste for a Cure, the Beverly Hills Bar Association’s Vintage Bouquet, St. John’s Well Child & Family Center Movable Feast, the American Liver Foundation’s Flavors of Los Angeles, Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation, the Concern Foundation’s Block Party, The Saban Free Clinic’s Extravaganza for the Senses. The list goes on. Admission to most of these food focused events starts at $100 a person. Some are quite a bit more. A seat at Taste for a Cure goes for $500. Chefs have become hot tickets and big money earners for charities. Consequently, many of them field a lot of inquiries from interested non profits.

“The number of events has multiplied exponentially,” says Border Grill’s Mary Sue Milliken, a board member of Share Our Strength. “We get invited at least once a week.” Requests for donations are even more frequent. Jar’s Suzanne Tracht fields those nearly daily. Other chefs report the same. And they can’t say yes to every solicitation. After all, while some events cover food costs and basic expenses, many do not. So accepting an “invitation” often means spending anywhere from $500 to $2000 on up for food, equipment rentals and other associated costs. Plus there’s the labor that goes into prepping for an event. Purveyors often are willing to cut chefs a deal on product when there’s a charity involved. But most chefs are loathe to tap those connections too often, especially in this still shaky economy.

How do chefs decide when to say yes and when to say no? “It really comes down to how in touch I am with a cause and how well the event is put together,” says Neal Fraser of BLD and the departed Grace. (Fraser plans to open a restaurant Downtown in 2013. It may or may not be called Grace.) “Some charities have more sentimental value,” he adds. “Things for autism—I have friends with autistic kids—or things that effect me personally such as homeless issues, living in Los Angeles, these things take precedent.”

Tracht feels a special connection to local organizations that deal with hunger and does a number of events every year focused on this issue. “Since we feed people we like to work with organizations that feed people,” she explains. She also does events for local health clinics and hospitals such as The Saban Free Clinic and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.  

Susan Feniger’s best friend from college was diagnosed with Scleroderma many year ago. That compelled the Border Grill co-chef and owner’s interest in the Scleroderma Research Foundation. For nearly 25 years, Feniger has spearheaded the “Cool Comedy Hot Cuisine” event in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco to benefit the foundation. This is just one of many events she supports.

There are other reasons, aside from personal passions, chefs say yes. Sometimes it’s a matter of who does the asking. “If Wolfgang Puck asks you to do an event, you’d like to say yes,” says Milliken. “First of all, he’s a great guy. He’s also someone you want on your side, or Barbara Fairchild when she was editor at Bon Appetit. The same thing with Jonathon Gold [the L.A. Weekly writer bound for the Los Angeles Times].”

Milliken points to other factors that can make doing an event more attractive: “having high profile, like minded chefs,” and “high profile media that can directly effect your business.”

And while the cause is first and foremost, most chefs agree these events are good marketing opportunities.

“You’re in your own backyard,” says Tracht. “You’re meeting people who have never been to your restaurant. When I’m standing there, I always say, ‘Hello. Have you ever been to Jar?’ So many people say, ‘No, where are you?’ They appreciate you being there because we’re supporting the same charity. Also when you do these events, you see customers you have not see in a while and you can kind of bust their chops. You’re reminding people that you’re still here and doing well.”

Not everyone believes doing a sit down dinner for charity or passing out hundreds of samples at a taste around for a good cause helps a restaurant’s bottom line.

“They hurt our business,” says Fraser. “Let’s say we’re going to do an event for two thousand people on a Saturday night. Of those two thousand people, how many would eat at one of our restaurants? Maybe twenty-five percent. So not only are we donating time, money, and food costs, we’re taking a client and now they are at a trade event.” Still, Fraser does a lot of charity events, both in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Despite the work involved, these events are fun, he says. “If it was a drag, I’d just make a donation.” For chefs who often spend 12 hours a day in the kitchen, the chance to hobnob with peers is especially welcome. But ultimately it’s about doing good.

“To be able to have an effect on something that is bigger than just making money or running a restaurant,” says Feniger, “I just think we’re in such a great position to do that. I feel lucky because our field gives back so much.”