There are few businesses as besieged by charity requests as restaurants, which are constantly fielding solicitations for giveaways and fundraiser appearances. Ashley Christensen, who this year won the James Beard Award for Best Chef-Southeast, has an assistant who spends 40 percent of her time vetting requests.
"It's sort of a tough conversation, but one of our responsibilities is figuring out where we can have the most impact," Christensen this weekend told an Atlanta Food & Wine Festival audience. "We don't want to be $100 gift certificated to death."
Christensen joined chefs John Currence of Oxford, Miss.; Chris Hall of Atlanta, Ga.; Rodney Scott of Hemingway, S.C. and Nick Pihakis, owner of the Jim 'N Nick's barbecue chain to discuss the emerging philanthropic role of chefs. Although the panelists stopped short of saying chefs should be expected to contribute to their communities, they emphasized that celebrity has provided contemporary chefs with an unprecedented platform from which to agitate for political causes and social justice.
"That's where we are with food now," said Hall, who founded The Giving Kitchen in the wake of his late business partner's Stage IV cancer diagnosis. The organization provides grants to hospitality workers in crisis. "We don't just set a plate of food in front of you."
Like Hall, the panel's other participants have either created their own organizations or narrowly targeted their giving.
"Very early in my career, I began to understand the depth and importance of sharing," said Currence, who's in the midst of organizing the Big Gay Mississippi Welcome Supper, a New York City event to protest a new Mississippi law allowing business owners to legally turn away patrons if serving them would conflict with the owners' religious beliefs. "We have a responsibility to the communities we're lucky enough to make a living from. It's something that feels good."
While the good feelings reported by every panelist went unchallenged, what's less certain is how to measure the reach of the chefs' hard work. There's no definitive way to know if a chef's time is best spent flipping fish at a fundraiser; talking to fellow chefs about health care or designating proceeds from a dish for charity.
But the chefs who joined the panel are committed to figuring out what kind of service makes sense.
"I don't think it should be required, to be checked off like a box," Christensen said. "But something like the James Beard Award, so much of that is not about who's the best cook. Out of creating great food, we're creating a culture."