Almost every month in Los Angeles, a different charity hosts a lavish food and drink gala to raise funds for their cause. People often pay triple-digit fees to wander (and then stagger) from table to table to gorge on food and wine and hobnob with high-profile chefs. To demonstrate the impact of her most cherished charity, Mary Sue Milliken gathered several chefs on March 31 at Venice’s St. Joseph Center to spotlight the initiatives and impact from Taste of the Nation.
Each spring, Share Our Strength. recruits leading chefs and mixologists to participate in over 50 Taste of the Nation events across the U.S. and Canada in an effort to eradicate childhood hunger. Since 1988, Taste of the Nation has raised over $70 million to ensure that no American child grows up hungry. In Los Angeles, since 1989, Taste of the Nation has donated more than $1.2 million to grant recipients. This year’s five recipients are the California Association of Food Banks, California Food Policy Advocates, Garden School Foundation, Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger & Homelessness, Los Angeles Regional Foodbank and St. Joseph Center. The final organization provides working families and homeless individuals with the resources they need to support themselves. Derek Walker is the executive chef of St. Joseph Center, and he was on hand to teach parents how to produce healthy, simple and low-cost meals for their children.
Evan Kleiman, the owner of Angeli Caffe and host of KCRW’s “Good Food,” was at St. Joseph Center. She said getting involved with Taste of the Nation was a “no brainer…Working for the children right here where we live is incredibly meaningful and it’s very grounding. You come to a place like St. Joseph Center today and look around and you realize how important it is to use any visibility you have to bring other eyes and other pockets to the problem.” After all, “There are still millions going to bed hungry every day in the United States, we should all hang our heads in shame.”
She says, “During the quote economic downturn, when you’ve been hearing about the incredible amounts of wealth that have been produced, going into private hands, and you realize …It just should not be, so any small thing I can possibly do to create awareness and get people comfortable to do their part will make me better able to live with myself.”
Mary Sue Milliken and business partner Susan Feniger (Border Grill, Ciudad) have been restaurateurs in Los Angeles since 1981, and their approach with charitable events has always been to say yes. Milliken has participated in Taste of the Nation since its inception and is currently helping to lead the charge as an organizer. “Feeding people is something that’s dear to my heart,” she says. “I spend almost every waking moment thinking about food, cooking and eating, and the fact that there are children who don’t have enough to eat is pretty much criminal in my mind, especially in a place like Los Angeles.”
Milliken also shared her personal connection to homelessness and hunger, saying, “My father lived in homeless shelters for about 10 years of his life and we have them to thank for him lasting longer than he would have otherwise. Hunger and homelessness is something dear to my heart. It’s just how I give back.”
When she first started, Taste of the Nation was only granting out $23,000 in Los Angeles after the event, placing L.A. just behind Michigan City, Indiana. “I decided I could either quit, or I could get involved,” she says. “I decided to just get more involved, got on to the committee and started facilitating and sharing my strength and trying to figure out a way to be proud of the event. Last year we were second in the country to only one other city, both in our gross sales and our net distributable funds.”
Milliken said the event at St. Joseph Center was designed “to bring together as many chefs as we could wrestle away from their restaurants and to educate them about the money we’ve been raising over the years and where it’s being spent and how it’s being spent and to inspire them and to reconnect them and recommit them to making this one of their top choices of all the different charities they get asked to be involved with. We are trying to really continue to have a little bit more of a tangible and connected education process so you don’t just feel like you’re going out and cooking for a bunch of rich people, but you’re connected to why you’re cooking for a bunch of rich people.” At St. Joseph Center, chefs learned about a farm-to-table program that Taste of the Nation is funding to ensure that food banks are getting millions of pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables. She says, “A lot of hungry people are not just getting canned and processed food, but their also getting fresh food from farms in California…It went from 2 million pounds to 4 million pounds last year and it’s the third year of the program…This means that my hard work and all my colleagues’ hard work is really paying off.”
Tiara Café owner Fred Eric has been working with Taste of the Nation for six years. He tends to participate in charitable events “when it’s not commerce driven…As a chef and restaurateur, you kind of do a commerce dance all the time. After awhile one of the things that happened for me was I got to the point where I wanted to do something that wasn’t commerce based, that were more community based or things that didn’t exchange me getting money for doing something.”
Taste of the Nation co-chair Daryl Ansel has been involved with Taste of the Nation on-and-off for 10 years. This year, he decided to volunteer in a bigger way. He’s worked with food for years, most recently with SBE. “I’m around so much food it’s crazy to me that people don’t have access to food,” he says. “There’s so much food, it’s just a matter of access for the right people to the food. It seems a shame to me that we were in this situation. That’s why it strikes a chord with me.”
He addressed the impact of our current economic doldrums, saying, “It’s tough for everybody to try and raise money. At the same time there are more people in need, so all the agencies that we’re serving are trying to serve more people. Companies are not doing as well, so they don’t have as much money to give. That’s the challenge we’re trying to overcome. We’re hoping to overcome that with ticket sales because we think that ticket sales will be strong. It’s a great event, a real fun event and everybody always has a good time. Ticket prices are really fair for what you get.”
This year, general admission provides access to 50 restaurants and 30 beverage venders, primarily Southern California wineries. Ansel says, “It’s a really nice way to try some new wines that you might not see so often and then pair that with foods that you might get once in a great while or maybe you haven’t tried yet because it’s a new restaurant…Most of the chefs are actually there and you’re able to talk to the chefs about their food. Then there’s a stage where we do food demos. This year we’re going to have a demo by Michael Mina (XIV)…Mina’s one of the great chefs in this country. He’s kind of our headliner chef. We’re also honoring Nancy Silverton (Pizzeria Mozza, Osteria Mozza). VIPs get access to a special area where there will be special demos. There will be a mixologist mixing up drinks. There will be a VIP guest from the Food Network who will be on hand. Those folks also get a gift bag that’s easily worth more than the extra price than the tickets. The VIP ticket is really a very good bargain.”
On June 14 from 1 PM – 4 PM. If you purchase tickets by May 13, they cost $115. After that, they jump to $125. At the door, tickets cost $135. VIP tickets cost $175 now and $185 at the door. Kids 10 and under are free.