Collaboration is the word of the year in the Baltimore restaurant scene. Every month delivers new announcements about good-natured cooking competitions or chefs "popping up" in one another's restaurants. Baltimore's chefs work hard in their own kitchens, but they also have a great time getting out and playing with the rest of the local culinary community.
Over the past few years, chefs say, as the city's food scene has blossomed, so have their relationships. For a handful of Baltimore chefs, the root of those friendships is in volunteering.
The volunteers include Baltimore newcomers, like Bryan Voltaggio, who just opened Aggio, his first restaurant here, and longtime members of the local culinary scene, such as Waterfront Kitchen's Jerry Pellegrino and Sergio Vitale of Aldo's Ristorante Italiano. These chefs — along with about a dozen colleagues — are the force behind Passion for Food & Wine, a dinner, auction and cocktail reception, now in its third year, that benefits the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
The 2013 event raised more than $210,000 — and the number grows each year. But it's more than just a fundraising party; Passion for Food & Wine has an impact on the city's growing culinary scene, and on the chefs personally.
The event, which this year will take place Sept. 4 at the Four Seasons Hotel, is unlike most food-oriented charity parties. Instead of chefs contributing appetizers, each participating chef cooks specifically for a table of about 10 to 12 diners. This year, 17 chefs will prepare meals.
"It's a very Food Network type of event," says Vitale. "We cook the entire, multicourse meal right in front of them."
In addition to dinner, the event showcases some of the city's top mixologists, and this year, pastry chefs and baristas will be added to the lineup. A lively auction is run largely by Vitale and Pellegrino, who cajole the audience into opening their wallets for choice items like high-end wines, donated by collectors, and private dinners cooked by the participating chefs.
For the chefs, the experience is more fun than the average cocktail party.
"To be able to engage with guests at an event at that level is really cool," says Zack Mills of Wit + Wisdom. "Normal events for charity are walk-around events. There are hundreds of people. You say "Hi," then walk away."
From the diner's perspective, the opportunity to observe and interact with top-notch chefs is unbeatable, says Mack McGee, a principal at Groove Commerce, a board member of Cystic Fibrosis Foundation of Maryland and one of the founding chairs of the event. Last year, McGee sat at the table of the Food Market's Chad Gauss.
"It was one of the best meals I've ever eaten," he says. "But the greatest part is that in addition to being an unbelievably talented chef, he's also just a fun guy. It's amazing, the quality of what they put out while they're just chatting."
The format also allows the chefs to interact with one another. "We're all running between stations, tasting food and trying to impress each other," says Vitale. "It's essentially chefs throwing separate dinner parties under one roof. It's crazy."
An event of this magnitude requires serious behind-the-scenes planning. The foundation has an enthusiastic and capable team working on Passion for Food & Wine — but organizers insist that part of what makes the event so special is that the chefs run the show, meeting throughout the year to hammer out the details, both creative and logistical. (When 17 chefs gather to cook, they require a lot of electricity.)
"The first year, it was 10 chefs, sitting around planning, talking and exchanging ideas about their craft and how to pull off the event," reminisces Pellegrino. "It went off without a hitch and was an incredible experience." Plus, he says, "It gives the chefs the opportunity to see each other four or five times a year. It got us all to start bonding as a group."
The meetings are productive, as the chefs bounce ideas off one another, offer opinions and make decisions about everything from plates to marketing partnerships — and they're also fun. "One time, we went down to Chad's place [The Food Market]," says foundation development director Kari Mutscheller. "He ordered the left side of the menu for everyone to eat. It was heavenly. It's just lovely to watch them together."
Mutscheller is also quick to credit the Four Seasons, which will host the event for the second time this year, and Whole Foods, which donates a significant amount of the food that ends up on plates.
The wine, much of which is donated by private collectors, also drives menu creation. "The choice of wines is a collaborative effort of generous collector donors, Sommelier Julie Dalton [of Wit + Wisdom] and, of course, the chefs," explains Gus Kalaris, the owner of Axios Wines and Constantine Wines and a member of the foundation's board.