In today’s NYTimes magazine food column, I write about a facet of the chef’s life that few people stop to consider: because of the nature of their business and the products they work with, they are besieged year-round to help others raise money.  In most cases, they do it with gusto.  Why?  Usually the answer is not any more complex than because they can.  Do they get something out of it?  Sure.  They promote their restaurant, they travel, they see chef friends.  But in an already overworked life running a business on thin margins, they do it primarily because they like to say yes.  As Mario put it, "We  do it because it feels good to do good and a sense of duty having harvested our success from the feeding of the fortunate.” More people should appreciate this side of the chef’s life and also, importantly, those who ask chefs for help need to be understanding when the chef, by necessity, has to say no. They can’t do everything, but they do do a hell of a lot and have become powerful levers in philanthropy.

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17 Wonderful responses to “The Generosity of Chefs”

  • Jennifer

    I love this post. I really believe in “giving back” to the community as a food professional or restaurant chef even when it feels like you’re being pulled many directions —- ouch!

    Sharing the love of food and health is never a waste in my opinion, and it’s so very important to teach Americans the importance of fresh, homemade food.

    Thanks Michael!!

  • Heather Fletcher

    With chefs as in most professions there are those that do…and those that don’t. Anyone who takes the time to “give back” deserves recognition even though I am absolutely sure that is not the rational behind why they do it. So Mario and Emeril etc,etc are wealthy….they are indeed self made. They were chefs prior to tv. I think chefs understand the struggles of life as much as anyone. I really feel anyone who does something good for others shows there are still good people out there regardless of social standing and stature.

  • Barbara

    I remember when a friend of mine was working for Muzak (yeah, can you imagine working there?), and she was in charge of a charity event that would help put musical instruments and music programs in place in inner city schools for poor kids. And she was having a hell of a time getting support in the business community and called me and was kvetching.

    I told her to call up Rick Bayless and Charlie Trotter.

    And she did.

    And they came through.

    She also ended up working with Oprah at my suggestion, which brought in the big bucks, but she was amazed at how big hearted the chefs and their staff members were. They went on the walk-a-thon, and donated food, and gift certificates for a raffle.

    She said she never would have thought of it, and wanted to know how I knew they would come through.

    I said that inside even the most bad-assed of line cooks and chefs, there is the heart of a nurturer who loves humanity and really wants to help them. And it has been true of every chef I have ever known.

    It is good to see that other folks are figuring this out, too.

  • Kaizen

    Wonderful article and quite timely in my life. I gather that readers of this blog are either chefs, foodies, or somewhat like me: a fumbling yet ebullient, home cook. If I am correct, I encourage all to tap into your philanthropic side and donate your culinary time and talents. I have been privileged to cook for a group of homeless men twice in the past month and it has been an amazing experience. I am seeking other opportunities to do the same in hopes to bring diverse groups together for a meal. Thanks, Mr Ruhlman for a fine article. And thanks for “Charcuterie.” I have checked it out from my local library multiple times already!

  • Claudia

    Tom, that was exactly one of the things I was thinking of when I referred to 9/11. Plus the fact that the Colors of Hope (?) restuarant was created by and for the ex-employees of Windows on the World (Michael LoMonaco, etc.), and all the chefs – a lot from downtown, certainly, but other neighborhoods, too) who fed all the emergency workers top of the line food all throughout – ON TOP of all the other good works and charity events. They were stellar. Every New Yorker did what they could do best – the massage therapy students from the Swedish Institute, I believe, gave workers massages, vets tended to the rescue dogs, pet supply companies fitted the dogs with protective booties, and the chefs, bless them, shut their restaurants (if they weren’t already closed, destroyed or inaccessible) and fed THOUSANDS of workers, for weeks and weeks. We saw the worst day in New York that day – but we saw the best of New York. And some of those best New Yorkers were (and are) our chefs and cooks. They fed the emergency crews lik they were feeding their highest-rolling customers, even as their businesses bled money and customers.

  • Tom Valenti

    …..And a good time, perhaps, to point out the community of over 4000 Chefs,Restaurateurs,vendors and volunteers that was Windows Of Hope.We together raised over 23 million dollars post 9/11 for our industry families. The dine out that followed the WTC attacks was pulled off on October 11th 2001, a little over three weeks from the actual event.As Bobby Flay pointed out, “we have been preparing our entire careers for this moment and we didn’t even know it” A pretty good example of an industry that gives.

  • Casey

    fine, fine article, michael. one question about the ceviche recipe, though. I thought cevice relied just on the “cooking” by the citrus juice. were you surprised to see that the recipe suggested pre-cooking the scallops a bit?

  • Jennie/Tikka

    Great piece, Ruhlman…but it makes me want to cry. Everywhere in the entire world except my own little insular territory called “Pasadena” understands this phenom and takes full advantage. Not so, here. Here, crappy restaurants still rule and the legitimate Michelin star rated restaurant and chef we actually have, remain off the social radar for anybody but out of town visitors.

    I’m glad to hear it’s working out in other places, though.

    Love,
    Jennie-from-a-charity-which-shall-remain-nameless-in-Pasadena

  • Maya

    I am also impressed with the generosity of most chefs, and not just the famous ones. Many of our local chefs are amazing.

    Sadly, charity itself can be flawed. It is often more about putting out fires than solving problems long term.

    People are foreclosing on houses partly due to the economy and gas prices. Katrina was a disaster than could have been avoided. Farmers around here are forced to sell their land to developers.

    I’m not saying chefs should not give to charity!! Not at all – however, just like any business, we all need to think long term.

    Chefs who buy local, get politically active, and make their business energy efficient and eco friendly can provide long-term solutions while they are at work, not just outside of work!! ;)

  • Claudia

    It’s true that chefs are in the business of pleasure, and it’s true that running or owning a restaurant is a business; but I do feel, their onw ambition or pursuit of excellence aside, that a lot of chefs are hardwired to feed, to nurture (the nature of professional kitchens and the personalities of a lot of cooks aside) – and their generosity is an extension of that. We see it time and time again for charities at every level, but certainly, a lot of them were at their best in response to Katrina and 9/11. They just didn’t donate or cook – they helped REBUILD. Or helped those doing the rescue/recovery help their stricken city.

  • Pavlov

    Great article Mr. Ruhlman… and a heart felt thanks to all the chefs out there making it happen.

  • ruhlman

    drbehavior, i didn’t intend to imply that mario or emeril were hard pressed. but there are only a handful of chefs in that category. The vast majority of chefs work very hard in a business in which it’s difficult to make money.

  • drbehavior

    The part of your article that deals with the generosity of chefs is as much indisputable as it is heartwarming. However, with all due respect, Mr. Ruhlman, when you wander off on the tangent of the chef’s you’ve named working more or less for the sake of gratification and for very little profit, that’s where I think you overstate your case. Virtually all of the aforementioned chefs are partnered with very successful businessmen who would not keep these establishments open were they taking home at the end of the year the sort of net that you suggest they do. We all know that Mr. Batali is partnered with a very successful group as is Bobby Flay and the others. My assertion is not in any way to demean the generosity of these good-hearted individuals rather to illumine the public that they’re not quite as hard pressed as you espouse them to be.

  • Claudia (cook eat FRET)

    and even on a smaller scale – the hard working chefs in nashville, tn and other less major cities across the country are also doing the same. it is endless what the local chef is called to do in this town alone. but they do it. constantly.

    hell, they’re even doing a charitable version of ‘iron chef’ here in may. WHOLE FOODS is kicking in the food on this one. i’ll be one of the judges. michael, wanna join us? (i kid, i kid…)

  • princess

    great article ruhlman…as a chef, i am always willing to put on my best face to support a good cause. plus, it allows me to get rid of any surplus food items that are crowding my walk in.

    i am so impressed by mario. so few chefs can inhabit that celebrity persona without selling out to the capitalistic urge to put forth or endorse terrible food. he, unlike tyler florence or bobby flay, stays true to the authenticity of our global culinary heritage, and manages to still be a success.

  • Big Red

    Philanthropy certainly is a major facet of my life. I cook for all sorts of events through the year to help raise money for this or that. It also gives me the opportunity to flex my culinary muscles a bit, as non-profits are more lax in what they want, and are usually really grateful to have anyone doing it for free. I may not cook professionally anymore but it is something I cannot give up altogether. (You either have it or you don’t, as some say) and without those chances I would hardly step foot in a commercial kitchen at all. People should pay more attention when the pro does events to raise money. You usually get the chance to taste at a cheap price and then know where to get it if you like it.

  • theitaliandish

    Amen to that. I read that article this morning and was glad to finally see chefs getting the recognition they deserve for being so generous with their time and talent.