Philanthropy from the Kitchen

Category: Philanthropists Published: Thursday, 12 August 2010 21:46 Hits: 2286

“We started this event in Los Angeles in 1982,” recounts Wolfgang Puck, the event’s creator and a major force behind it to this day. “We got together and said, ‘why don’t we create something where we have different chefs working together to support a charity?’ We picked Meals on Wheels.”

And 25 years later, Puck is still more than effervescent about his event. “It is the mother of all food and wine festivals,” he says, citing the watershed nature of the dinner.“25 years ago people didn’t talk about American food like they do now.”

Since its inception in 1982, the Puck-Lazaroff Charitable Foundation, headed by Puck and designer Barbara Lazaroff, has sup- ported the American Wine & Food Festival, raising more than $13 million for the Los Angeles chapter of Meals on Wheels, an organiza- tion that serves thousands of meals each day to Los Angeles’ home- bound, senior and disabled citizens.

Inspired by his mother Maria, a hotel chef, the Austrian-born Puck began his formal training to become a classically trained French chef at age 14. Los Angeles welcomed Puck in his twenties, when he became chef and part-owner of Ma Maison, a magnet for the rich and famous and, later, Spago. His first signature dishes—such as gourmet pizzas topped with smoked salmon and caviar and Sonoma baby lamb with braised greens and rosemary—put him on the map. Puck is part of a wave of chefs changing the way Americans eat by seeking out the highest quality ingredients and then combining formal French cooking techniques with Californian and Asian-fusion aesthetics.

Following the success of Ma Maison and Spago, Puck continued to open a string of signature restaurants in multiple cities—Chinois, Postrio, Granita, Cut, and the Wolfgang Puck American Grille.

Equally impressive is his extensive catering and events business, most notably the annual Governors Ball following the Academy Awards. A man with his finger in many pies, Puck has extended his culinary hand to casual, express restaurants; consumer products including packaged foods, beverages and cookware; book publishing; and an assortment of television, radio and internet programming.

Yet, in spite of his mammoth success, Puck explains that he still gets his primary inspiration from his ingredients.“I still go to the farmers’ and fish markets to see what is there. I buy the best ingredients and enhance them with exciting flavors,” he reveals.“We want people to live better; we buy humane- ly treated animals and organic produce.”

So what of this year’s incarnation of the American Wine & Food Festival? Guests were treated to a lively scene of food, chefs, vintners and Cirque du Soleil performers, all gathering on the stage that is the Universal Studios back- lot. Puck’s culinary contribution to the festivities this year included, as the chef fervently describes,“something with lamb, liberty duck and lobster chinois.”

It’s obvious that Puck loves what he does, and he loves this event. “I think for us it’s a lot of chefs getting together. It’s a lot of fun and always of the best quality,” he explains.

For Puck, the event hits especially close to home.

“I really always tell people I was very lucky to come to this country with no money—no nothing,” he says.“I remember checking into a hotel when I first came here and I couldn’t check out because I had no credit card, no bank account, no money. I was successful, and it’s our duty to give something back to the people who have less. Giving makes you feel better than getting.”

New York:The 22nd Annual “Chefs Gone Wild” Participating Chef: Joachim Splichal, Patina Restaurant Group A participant himself in the American Wine & Food Festival, Joachim Splichal, the founder of Patina Restaurant Group, is also a major force behind New York City’s “Chefs Gone Wild”, a similar dinner organized thousands of miles away to benefit NewYork’s own Citymeals-on-Wheels.

In June, Splichal helped Citymeals-on-Wheels put on the 22nd annual incarnation of the event at Rockefeller Center. What started in 1984 with twelve chefs is now an all-out extravaganza—34 separate teams of chefs came out to contribute this year.

During this feast, more than 1,200 of New York’s business leaders, social and cultural trendsetters and gourmands mingled with leading chefs, sampling their specialties.This year’s creations indulged guests’ taste buds with crisp pro- duce and a healthy harvest of the nation’s finest,freshest foods.After an evening of treats, sweets, and signature cocktails, guests enjoyed dancing under the stars until midnight. Famed architect and set designer David Rockwell designed the gardens, rink and esplanades of Rockefeller Center for the event, transforming the setting into New York’s most glamorous farmer’s market.

Over the course of the year, Citymeals-on-Wheels underwrites 2.7 million hand-delivered meals to nearly 18,000 seniors in NewYork City.This year’s event raised $1.2 million, which translates directly into over 200, 000 meals.

“Healthier eating for our meal recipients is a prior- ity for Citymeals-on-Wheels,” says Marcia Stein, execu- tive director of Citymeals-on-Wheels.“A portion of the night’s proceeds will be designated to deliver healthier foods, whole grains and fresh produce to our home- bound elderly. One hundred percent of every dollar we raise through ticket sales at ‘Chefs Gone Wild’ will help Citymeals-on-Wheels provide nutritious, hand-delivered meals for aged New Yorkers, our most often for- gotten neighbors.”

The participating chefs (who numbered more than 40) were among the most renowned in the world. Signature wines include many Californian vintners familiar to wine buffs, including Au Bon Climat, Beckmen, and Francis Coppola Wineries.

In many ways, Splichal is the glue tying the East Coast and West Coast events together.

For the American Wine & Food Festival, where Splichal says his intent was to design “just a little bite,” the chef created a whimsical dish, “a potato- chip tower with lemon scallops and caviar,” combining the ever-popular and oh-so-humble potato with one of the most expensive ingredients—caviar.

Photo by Steve Brinkman.