Humanitarian chef believes generosity begins at the table

HAPPY EATER

May 16, 1993|By ROB KASPER

Christian C. De Vos spends much of his life jetting in and ou of cities. In April, the prize-winning chef and vice president of special projects for ARA Leisure Services was in Baltimore to check on the cuisine being served at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Then he flew to Denver to help open food operations of the Colorado Rockies baseball team.

In the next few months he will be in and out of Baltimore. He will help run a minority training program for 18 workers in Camden Yards kitchen; he will prepare for several of the big-deal dinners accompanying the July 13 All Star Game. He will sandwich in trips to San Jose and San Antonio to work on ARA food services operations there.

But recently over coffee in his Baltimore rowhouse apartment where he stays while working here, the travel experience De Vos was most anxious to talk about was what he discovered on a trip to rural Haiti. Last winter, De Vos took a few vacation days to help a Catholic priest he knew who was working on the western tip of Haiti near Jeremie.

Flying into one village in a single-engine plane, De Vos watched as the pilot first buzzed the "landing strip" to clear it of cows. On the ground he saw that the people living outside Jeremie lacked many basic services, including a system for pumping fresh water from wells and piping it to distribution points.

When De Vos got back to the United States, he immediately began raising the $80,000 or so needed to get the water distribution system started. Now he said, he is looking for someone who knows how to build aqueducts. When I caught up with De Vos in Baltimore, he struck me as a soft-spoken, graying 40-year-old, who was not comfortable with drawing attention to himself. Later he told me why. Charity for publicity irked him. If someone in the media asks you about charitable work, he said, you tell them. But a person or a corporation helps others because it should be done, not because it generates good publicity.

I learned about De Vos and his work when I saw his name listed as one of the nominees for a humanitarian-of-the-year award given out by the James Beard Foundation. This year that award went to Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream.

De Vos is in the habit of spending his off-hours helping others. When, for instance, De Vos arrived in Chicago in 1982 to run the restaurant atop the John Hancock building, he soon set up a program to get holiday meals delivered to elderly and disabled people stuck in their homes. De Vos, his wife Marnie, and their 14-year-old son live in Chicago's near north side.

To raise money for the feeding program, De Vos organized Celebrity Chef Brunches, a springtime charity feed in which chefs from around the country fly into Chicago and wheel carts of their food to seated diners. The brunch is now in its fifth year. Last year, his Chicago feeding program earned De Vos an award for humanitarian service from Food Management magazine, an industry trade journal.

De Vos struggled when I asked him how his food background -- schooled in Europe, an instructor at the prestigious Johnson & Wales culinary school in Providence, R.I., a silver-medal winner in culinary competition of the Pan American Games -- fit in with his desire to help others. "I guess everything starts around the table," he said. "The act of feeding someone is basically a generous act."

He said his family upbringing and his religion have shaped how he sees the world. Born in the Congo, now Zaire, where his father worked for the Belgian government, De Vos was one of five children. When he was very young his family moved to Belgium. In the De Vos household, he said, "there was always room at the dinner table for two or three more people." When people rang the doorbell asking for food, his mother would feed them, no questions asked.

"Better to give to someone who doesn't need it," said De Vos quoting his mother, "Than not to give and miss someone who really needs it."

A Catholic, De Vos is studying to become a lay deacon, an assistant to parish priests, for the Archdiocese of Chicago. His wife is studying with him, he said, even though church rules do not allow women to become deacons.

When asked about his motivation, De Vos became reflective. "It is an attitude toward life," he said. " It is a sense of social responsibility."

And so next winter De Vos will hop on another plane. This one is bound for Haiti. He hopes to have plans for the water system in his luggage, and someone to build the system sitting with him.

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