When Ben Simpkins was 16, he was involved in an auto accident that turned out to be more of a lucky break than a tragedy.
During an examination that followed, doctors discovered the teenager's kidneys were failing. Without immediate action, Simpkins, who had no pain, no symptoms and no family history of kidney disease, had perhaps six months to live.
"It changed my life," Simpkins, 34, a Parkville resident and married father of two, said of the dramatic diagnosis.
After a year on dialysis, Simpkins underwent a successful organ transplant, the kidney donated by his mother, Dail Simpkins. He subsequently graduated from Johnson & Wales University, a culinary college, and embarked on a career as a corporate chef with the Sheraton Hotel chain. By the age of 23, he was banquet manager at one of its hotels, responsible for 40 cooks, the banquet staff and an annual $8 million operation.
Last year, Simpkins, now executive chef at Richardson Farms, a White Marsh wholesale and retail produce market, was participating in a local food competition when officials from the National Kidney Foundation of Maryland (NKF-MD) approached him.
Would he participate in its annual food-tasting fundraiser? "They didn't know I was a transplant," relates Simpkins. "I said, 'I'm in!' "
Simpkins chairs the Restaurant Recruitment Committee for the 2013 Santé: A Culinary Odyssey, set for Nov. 21. NKF-MD's major fundraiser, last year's event raised over $200,000.
"I called in all my favors," he says of the 40 local restaurants and their chefs who will be on hand. Simpkins is planning to make a 50-foot pumpkin-pecan cheesecake, setting what he calls a "global record. It's the wow factor," he says.
An estimated 26 million Americans have kidney disease or, put another way, more than 10 percent, a figure that holds for Marylanders. Diabetes and uncontrolled high blood pressure are the leading causes of kidney failure; although there are types of inherited kidney disease as well.
NKF-MD is a nonprofit, voluntary health organization headquartered in Lutherville. Its service area includes all but two counties in Maryland — Prince George's and Montgomery counties come under the District of Columbia's service area — as well as parts of Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia.
"All the money we raise stays in our service area," Lydia Foxwell, director of special events, says of NKF-MD's annual budget of about $1 million.
The Maryland organization focuses on community-based screenings for warning signs of kidney disease; monetary grants for qualifying patients; an outdoor program for children, teens and young adults with kidney disease; and research grants to Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland. Hospital transplant centers handle the details of that procedure, although NKF-MD assists with the process.
"We do a lot of outreach to encourage organ donation," says Foxwell, who last year donated a kidney to a friend — a 43-year-old wife and mother who went into renal failure.
As for Simpkins, he's been preparing food since he was 14, starting as a helper in a restaurant in his hometown of Virginia Beach, Va. "I can't change the oil in my car. I can't hang a picture frame. But I can cook," he says.
At the family-owned Richardson Farms, he oversees 33 cooks in the kitchen/deli department in preparing "home-cooked" meals using produce grown on the 400-acre farm.
"Culinary has grown a lot," he says, referring to the influence of television's Food Network and celebrity chefs. "And locally grown, farm-to-table is big."
NKF-MD's 2013 Santé: A Culinary Odyssey will be held Nov. 21, 6 to 10:30 p.m., at M&T Bank Stadium. For information, go to santebaltimore.com or contact Lydia Foxwell at 410-494-8545 or firstname.lastname@example.org.