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The New Chefanthropy

Chefs are making their charity work personal. 

Eight of us are gathered tonight in Gaoler’s Mews, the private restaurant within a restaurant behind Vancouver’s L’Abattoir, where a pair of the country’s best chefs are cooking us dinner. Across the bar, Lee Cooper, who owns the place, and his friend, Derek Dammann of Montreal’s Maison Publique, are plating bright tomatoes and stuffing them with Dungeness crab. Later, they hand over baked oysters—one with truffle, the other with marmite—then plates of lightly cooked wild salmon heaped with caviar and, after that, lamb four ways alongside a glass of aged nebbiolo.

It is an exceptional meal not only because of the intimate setting—guests are outnumbered by staff two to one—or the quality of the cooking, but because the dinner is a fundraiser for the BC Hospitality Foundation. The 12-year- old charity helps people in the industry who are in financial difficulty because of health issues. Its work has helped waiters, baristas, concierges, etc., who had nowhere else to turn, as well as their families. What sets this fundraiser apart in particular is that it was spearheaded by the restaurant and not, as is normally the case, the charity. Chefs are constantly asked to donate their time and money to worthwhile causes, but it’s unusual for them to take matters into their own hands and organize philanthropic events themselves. “We get asked a lot to contribute in one way or another to various charities,” Cooper explains, “and at some point, I started to think maybe giving out all these $200 gift certificates that kind of get lost in the mix wasn’t the best way of using our energy. Eventually we decided, let’s pick one charity that we work with and try to make a real impact.” Gaoler’s Mews will host three more such dinners this year, each with a special guest chef, and each will raise about $5,000. “These events are huge for us,” says Dana Harris, executive director of the BC Hospitality Foundation. “Most of our donations are from events we do that are labour-intensive and take some investment, and a lot of our donations are $75 here and $100 there.”

Cooper isn’t the only chef taking his philanthropic efforts in-house. Spanish-American José Andrés is a justifiably world-famous chef, but his ongoing work as a first responder and charitable organizer may prove to be his more important legacy. His action-based non-profit, World Central Kitchen, was founded in 2010 after he volunteered in earthquake-ravaged Haiti. Since then, the chef and his organization have provided meals to people left hungry after natural disasters around the world. Across Canada, chefs are also finding unique ways to harness their abilities to pay it forward. In St. John’s, Jeremy Charles of Raymonds hosts an annual Dinner for Levi event that brings together chefs from across the country and around the world to cook a collaborative meal using the best Newfoundland ingredients. Over the past seven years, the dinner has raised nearly $600,000 for the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the Janeway Children’s Hospital. The fundraiser is intensely personal for Charles. His first son, Levi, was born prematurely and cared for at the Janeway neonatal unit, but did not survive. “This event is partly a way to celebrate life and the friendships we’ve made in the culinary world,” Charles explains. “But it is also our way of giving back to the staff of the neonatal unit, and a way of keeping our son’s spirit alive.”

Also in its seventh year is chef-restaurateur Justin Leboe’s Plate Swap, which raises money for Brown Bagging for Calgary’s Kids, which brings healthy, well-balanced lunches to thousands of local children. In November, Joe Beef’s David McMillan, along with co-founder J.C. Rainville, will officially launch the fundraiser for their Remise en Place initiative, which aims to help people in the hospitality industry struggling with mental health and/ or addiction issues get access to therapy. With more and more chefs pursuing their own philanthropic endeavours, charity-minded diners are discovering that doing the right thing never tasted so good.