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A million bucks.
In this era of dot-com millionaires, most of whom remain just as geeky as they were in high school, it just doesn't seem so exciting, does it? Not to mention that since our standards have been so inflated, you can become an instant millionaire just by eating raw cow brains or promising to marry a stranger on any given reality television show. You can come win it on quiz and game shows. Or you can get lucky in contests like finding the right color of M&M or twisting the magic cap off a twenty-ounce bottle of Dr. Pepper.
Unless, of course, you're Allen Susser, chef-proprietor of the venerable Chef Allen's in Aventura. And the million dollars you've made has been raised through philanthropy. And every cent of that sum has gone directly to organizations like the Daily Bread Food Bank, which in turn manages to put 98 cents of every dollar received toward feeding Miami's underprivileged. When only two pennies out of every dollar go toward bureaucracy, a million bucks seems so much more than just the American way.
Okay, so Chef Allen, who for the past sixteen years has chaired the Miami chapter of Share Our Strength (SOS) -- a domestic chefs' organization dedicated to supporting more than 450 organizations that feed the world's hungry -- hasn't quite reached the seven-figure mark, encompassing all his years of service, just yet. But the beneficiaries have been estimating that this year's Taste of the Nation, the SOS signature culinary benefit, will bring the tally up to at least that much, if not more. When you consider that the total amount raised by SOS since 1988 is $50 million, and take into account the "more than 10,000 community leaders [who] come together in more than 65 cities across the United States and Canada to organize one-of-a-kind culinary events," as the Website notes, then Chef Allen's forthcoming achievement is even more impressive.
Part of the reason that the million-dollar goal is fingers-crossed-going-to-be-met is because Susser has taken the campaign to the next level. Typically, city chapters host their annual Taste of the Nation benefits -- collective tastings that are held in some giant hall or ballroom -- during the spring. Due to the other charity events that have been inundating the city since 9/11, Susser and company decided to change season(ing)s and moved the Taste time to the summer, when the gastronomically inclined get bored and the competition for selling $150 tickets is less stiff.
Then there's the even wiser decision to take SOS out of the same-old-shit category and make Taste more appealing to a wider range of diner. "We wanted to bring up the awareness to get the community more involved," Susser says. To that end, "several different coordinated events to support hunger relief," five total, have been scheduled from July to September -- a period of time I can't help but refer to as the "summer of love."
The first public display of affection, entitled "Five Fab Female Chefs," was held this past week at Carmen's, where chef-proprietor Carmen Gonzalez, Michelle Bernstein (Azul), Andrea Curto-Randazzo (Talula), Cindy Hutson (Ortanique on the Mile), and Jennifer Brown (Chef Allen's) presented a stunning five-course, wine-paired meal. Thanks to the chefs themselves, who donate their talent and labor; companies like Southern Wine & Spirits and Schieffelin and Somerset, who contribute their products; and corporate sponsors like American Express and Jenn-Air, this money will head directly to Camillus House, the Daily Bread Food Bank, and P.A.C.T. (an interfaith coalition).
For their trouble, the chefs had to make a lot of kissy face -- the television media presence was so overwhelming that at one point the diminutive Gonzalez was using her friends and regular customers as a shield to get herself out of the camera eye. But while Gonzalez may be slightly shy and prone to seeking out the shadows rather than the spotlight, she's also been, as Susser noted during the introduction of the event, "a long -- short -- supporter of Taste throughout the years, whether she had a kitchen or not." He was equally effusive about Bernstein, whose Mandarin Oriental Miami site hosted the Taste event last year; Hutson, who participates in Taste in every city where she runs an Ortanique outpost, including Las Vegas and Washington, D.C.; Curto, who is introducing and representing Talula for the first time; and of course Brown, who is Susser's pastry chef.
As first-night ambassadors, these women were ideal choices, since they collectively stand for much of what SOS and Taste are all about: community, commitment, and culinary talent. Or, as Susser more eloquently put it before the feasting began, "What better way to feed the hungry than by going to the chefs to feed ourselves?" Can you say win-win situation?
The nicest part about all of this making-nice stuff, however, is that even if you skipped this event, you haven't missed out. The next party takes place July 28 at Turnberry Isle Resort and Club, and is what the bon vivants in Miami picture when Taste comes up in conversation: a grand tasting put on by 65 of the county's top chefs (and yes, we do have that many). Tickets for the Dom Perignon VIP reception are on sale now for $150; general admission costs $75. On August 31 the Mango Kings, a select group of chefs, will host a third reception, again at $150 per ticket, and again at Turnberry. The SOS summer will wrap up in September at the Great American Bake Sale, a collective of pastry chefs, bakeries, and schools that will get everybody high on sugar and processed flour at the Loews Hotel, and Grand Marnier will be the drink of choice to wash all that chocolate down.
So what, you might be wondering, is the fifth event? That would be Miami Spice, my finely fattened friends. This year Miami Spice has joined auspices with SOS. Not only will the restaurants be offering their unique, three-course prix fixe specials for August, using goods dispensed by brands such as Evian and illy, American Express will donate a portion of proceeds for every Spice transaction that involves the company. And many establishments will be running their menus for two months, which means that Miami Spice has a good chance of making a difference not just in our waistlines but in the coffers of hunger relief. When you consider that Miami is the largest metro area in the country with the largest population living under the poverty level, dining might just become the most important lip service in town.
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