In its eighth year, Empty Bowls has become not only a major fundraiser for one of Baltimore's oldest and busiest charities but a popular event for which people are willing to get in line early.
Half an hour before doors opened Saturday at the Maryland State Fairgrounds, more than 200 ticket-holders waited eagerly for the first seating of soups from some of the region's best restaurants.
"People who've been here before know to come early," said John Schiavone, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore, the host and beneficiary of an event that has grown so much since 2007 that organizers had to split it into lunch and dinner sessions.
Empty Bowls has been a movable feast, too — the 4-H building at the fairgrounds in Timonium is its third and largest venue. About 350 people attended the first event. More than 2,200 were expected at both soup sessions Saturday.
For $20, diners got their pick of an array of handmade, hand-painted ceramic bowls — 3,000 of them, donated by volunteers — and a sampling of soups from Baltimore-area restaurants:
Roasted jalapeno and corn chowder from Mama's On The Half Shell and Nacho Mama's; black bean soup from Linwoods; roasted tomato and white bean from the Center Club; vichyssoise from Salt Tavern; celery root soup from Pazo; Miss Shirley's sweet potato soup with maple sour cream; and chicken noodle soup, black bean with sausage, and lentil-spinach soup from Cafe Troia.
As usual, the lines were long for the cream of crab soup from Squire's Restaurant in Dundalk and the classic Maryland crab soup from Atlantic Caterers.
Each restaurant donated 30 gallons of each soup, with volunteers running fresh pots from a temporary kitchen in the rear of the building to serving stations that ringed the large decorated room.
The organizers of Empty Bowls 2014 dedicated the curtained kitchen area to Michael D. "Mick" Kipp, known by many as Mick T. Pirate. A bartender, spice-maker and caterer with a big personality and gallons of energy, Kipp was Empty Bowls' "soup logistics expert" from the start, the volunteer, in colorful bandanna and kilt, who kept things running.
"Mick was the center of energy of Empty Bowls," said Schiavone, who came to count on Kipp to keep soup properly heated and available at the serving stations. "When I saw him here, I knew everything was going to be all right."
Kipp died last spring of cardiac arrest at 51.
Taking over in Kipp's absence this year was Monique "Chef Mo" Jordan. She's the training chef at Next Course, a culinary arts class run by St. Vincent de Paul. Next Course's mission is to train unemployed adults for jobs in restaurants, hotels and catering.
Men and women from 18 to middle age — young people who left high school without a college or career plan, inmates on work-release, older people looking to learn a craft — enroll in the 15-week course.
They get classroom instruction and work in daily food production for KidzTable, another St. Vincent de Paul operation that provides 9,000 meals a day to Baltimore-area Head Start programs, a Catholic elementary school, after-school programs, shelters and day care centers.
KidzTable provided one of the soups for Saturday's Empty Bowls.
"It's called loaded potato," says Chris Benzing, who manages KidzTable for St. Vincent de Paul. "It's a creamy soup of potato, cheese, onions and bacon. It's basically a baked potato creamed into a soup."
When Benzing stepped away from the Mick T. Pirate Memorial Kitchen into the main dining hall, he exclaimed, "Look at the line for loaded potato!" It stretched to the middle of the room — 30 people waiting for the creamy comfort of a soup made by the cooks of KidzTable.