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Chefs bond while giving back

Collaboration is the word of the year in the Baltimore restaurant scene. Every month delivers new announcements about good-natured cooking competitions or chefs "popping up" in one another's restaurants. Baltimore's chefs work hard in their own kitchens, but they also have a great time getting out and playing with the rest of the local culinary community.

Over the past few years, chefs say, as the city's food scene has blossomed, so have their relationships. For a handful of Baltimore chefs, the root of those friendships is in volunteering.

The volunteers include Baltimore newcomers, like Bryan Voltaggio, who just opened Aggio, his first restaurant here, and longtime members of the local culinary scene, such as Waterfront Kitchen's Jerry Pellegrino and Sergio Vitale of Aldo's Ristorante Italiano. These chefs — along with about a dozen colleagues — are the force behind Passion for Food & Wine, a dinner, auction and cocktail reception, now in its third year, that benefits the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

The 2013 event raised more than $210,000 — and the number grows each year. But it's more than just a fundraising party; Passion for Food & Wine has an impact on the city's growing culinary scene, and on the chefs personally.

The event, which this year will take place Sept. 4 at the Four Seasons Hotel, is unlike most food-oriented charity parties. Instead of chefs contributing appetizers, each participating chef cooks specifically for a table of about 10 to 12 diners. This year, 17 chefs will prepare meals.

"It's a very Food Network type of event," says Vitale. "We cook the entire, multicourse meal right in front of them."

In addition to dinner, the event showcases some of the city's top mixologists, and this year, pastry chefs and baristas will be added to the lineup. A lively auction is run largely by Vitale and Pellegrino, who cajole the audience into opening their wallets for choice items like high-end wines, donated by collectors, and private dinners cooked by the participating chefs.

For the chefs, the experience is more fun than the average cocktail party.

"To be able to engage with guests at an event at that level is really cool," says Zack Mills of Wit + Wisdom. "Normal events for charity are walk-around events. There are hundreds of people. You say "Hi," then walk away."

From the diner's perspective, the opportunity to observe and interact with top-notch chefs is unbeatable, says Mack McGee, a principal at Groove Commerce, a board member of Cystic Fibrosis Foundation of Maryland and one of the founding chairs of the event. Last year, McGee sat at the table of the Food Market's Chad Gauss.

"It was one of the best meals I've ever eaten," he says. "But the greatest part is that in addition to being an unbelievably talented chef, he's also just a fun guy. It's amazing, the quality of what they put out while they're just chatting."

The format also allows the chefs to interact with one another. "We're all running between stations, tasting food and trying to impress each other," says Vitale. "It's essentially chefs throwing separate dinner parties under one roof. It's crazy."

An event of this magnitude requires serious behind-the-scenes planning. The foundation has an enthusiastic and capable team working on Passion for Food & Wine — but organizers insist that part of what makes the event so special is that the chefs run the show, meeting throughout the year to hammer out the details, both creative and logistical. (When 17 chefs gather to cook, they require a lot of electricity.)

"The first year, it was 10 chefs, sitting around planning, talking and exchanging ideas about their craft and how to pull off the event," reminisces Pellegrino. "It went off without a hitch and was an incredible experience." Plus, he says, "It gives the chefs the opportunity to see each other four or five times a year. It got us all to start bonding as a group."

The meetings are productive, as the chefs bounce ideas off one another, offer opinions and make decisions about everything from plates to marketing partnerships — and they're also fun. "One time, we went down to Chad's place [The Food Market]," says foundation development director Kari Mutscheller. "He ordered the left side of the menu for everyone to eat. It was heavenly. It's just lovely to watch them together."

Mutscheller is also quick to credit the Four Seasons, which will host the event for the second time this year, and Whole Foods, which donates a significant amount of the food that ends up on plates.

The wine, much of which is donated by private collectors, also drives menu creation. "The choice of wines is a collaborative effort of generous collector donors, Sommelier Julie Dalton [of Wit + Wisdom] and, of course, the chefs," explains Gus Kalaris, the owner of Axios Wines and Constantine Wines and a member of the foundation's board.

The wines are selected before creation of the menus so the chefs can consider them when developing their menus. Dalton then reviews their food selections and makes specific pairing recommendations for each course, sometimes working with Kalaris to tweak the list of available wines.

The impact of the Passion for Food & Wine event spills over far beyond what goes on the plate or in the glass — or even what goes into the foundation's coffers. Though they work at competing restaurants, participating chefs believe their friendships and collaboration help improve the Baltimore culinary scene as a whole.

"No other event has been more effective in helping to foster and create a community among the local chefs," says Vitale. "So many of us have become friends as a result of the interaction we've had planning. We've all become friends — the very up-and-coming chefs and established restaurateurs. I don't think any of that culture would have happened without the Passion event."

Vitale notes that friendships established through event planning have spawned other culinary events, like "pop-up" restaurants, in which a chef "pops up" in another chef's kitchen, taking over or collaborating for a night or two.

Meeting and working with other chefs inspires everyone to improve, says Cyrus Keefer of Fork & Wrench. "This event is the cream of the crop. It's awesome to be in the presence of that great talent. It motivates us to do the best we can do."

Vitale, who opened Aldo's in 1998, says he is invigorated by working with chefs from newer restaurants. "The only reason a restaurant like Aldo's survives is because we're still relevant," he says. "Food is like fashion — we don't eat the same way as five years ago. It's fun to be in a room with chefs to see what's working. Almost like being on the runway at Fashion Week."

The time is right for events like this in Baltimore, says Chris Becker, chief operating officer of the Bagby Restaurant Group, which owns several local restaurants, including Fleet Street Kitchen and Cunningham's. Becker notes that the city's culinary scene has dramatically matured over the past five years — and that the current collaborative environment bodes well.

"I don't think any of this could have happened five or 10 years ago," he says. "Baltimore has become more of a food city where chefs are taking control. No one person is going to put Baltimore on the map. If we all work together to push ourselves, we can ultimately make Baltimore an even better food scene than what it's grown to in the past five years."

For Becker, being able to raise money by doing what he loves is a major bonus. "To use food as a means to help people is just really cool to me," he says. Both he and Vitale have become so inspired by their work with Passion for Food & Wine that they have joined the foundation board.

This year's Passion for Food & Wine event, in which tickets were $650 per person, is sold out. A second event, Continue the Passion for Food & Wine, is in the works. The second party, which will take place this fall, will be more informal, with an urban barbecue theme.

With two years under their belts, and two parties in the works, the chefs are fired up about this year's Passion events.

"I think this will be the best year by far," says Pellegrino. "I'm looking forward to seeing what these other guys have come up with to wow the people in front of them."

More information

For details about the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, about Passion for Food & Wine and Continue the Passion for Food & Wine, visit cff.org.

Restaurants participating in the dinner portion of the 2014 Passion for Food & Wine event include Aggio / Volt, Aldo's Ristorante Italiano, Apropoe's, Bluegrass, Blue Hill Tavern, The Capital Grille, Fleet Street Kitchen, Fork & Wrench, Four Seasons Hotel, Jonah Kim (formerly of Pabu), Ouzo Bay Greek Kouzina, Roy's, Talara, The Food Market, Waterfront Kitchen, Wit + Wisdom and Woodberry Kitchen.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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