Get Out and Give Back: Chefs for a Cause

by Editorial

Washington’s top chefs share their favorite nonprofits.

Cathal Armstrong, Robert Wiedmaier and RJ Cooper at Wiedmaer's adopted school Eaton Elementary. Photo by Courtesy Jane Hess Collins.

“Chefs, probably more than in any other industry, participate in so many charitable events,” declares Cathal Armstrong, chef and co-owner of the award-winning (and presidential anniversary dinner pick) Restaurant Eve. How true. Selecting a few chefs to profile for their charity work was a difficult task, because dozens more are just as devoted to strengthening the Washington community. Nonetheless, Armstrong and his peers share with Washington Life readers where and why they love to give back.

Cathal Armstrong

When he’s not hosting the Obamas’ wedding anniversary dinner at his award-winning Restaurant Eve, overseeing his other restaurants or planning to open three more, Executive Chef Cathal Armstrong focuses on feeding kids healthy and delicious food in public schools. As part of Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools program to combat childhood obesity, Armstrong sampled a public school lunch with several other Washington- area chefs and was horrified by the fatty, over-processed menu. In July of 2010 Armstrong founded the nonprofit Chefs as Parents with other top local chefs to begin the transformation of school lunches.

Unhappy as he is about the quality of public school food, Armstrong praises the school cafeteria workers, citing their extraordinary efforts, dedication and commitment to feeding hundreds of school kids with roughly $2.68 that the government allocates for each child’s daily lunch. He plans to start weekly visits with those workers in the Alexandria City Public Schools early next year, and believes that by incorporating small changes carefully, slowly and steadily, bigger changes will follow.

This Christmas, Armstrong hopes to once again serve gourmet meals to wounded veterans and their families as part of the Virginia Ann Wiedmaier Holiday Dinner, started by fellow chef, friend and Chefs as Parents board member Robert Wiedmaier. “It is one of my favorite, favorite, favorite events to do because we actually have a direct connection to people who are recipients of our charity,” Armstrong said. “It hurts, but it’s my favorite event, too.”

Jeffrey Buben

The Vidalia and Bistro Bis owner believes in long-term giving with the charities he supports. He’s been a featured chef with Dining Away Duchenne for the last 10 years and continues to work with the nonprofits D.C. Central Kitchen and Capitol Area Food Bank to combat hunger.

Giving back is very natural, very easy and makes perfect sense to Buben. With the strong community support his restaurants receive, channeling his culinary skills toward charity work is his way of paying it forward. “What we do best is cook,” he says as he takes his place behind a kitchen station or volunteers to create a private dinner as a silent auction item.

His favorite project is the annual Share Our Strength Taste of the Nation gala, aimed at ending childhood hunger, which Buben has been a part of since it started. He remembers the very first event, with about 20 chefs participating from restaurants around metropolitan D.C., as kind of “ad hoc.” Today it has grown into a worldwide, celebrity-laden media event, and marching toward its goal of eliminating childhood hunger by 2015.

Buben likens returning each year to support Share Our Strength as a double-edged sword. While he is passionate about combating childhood hunger, he wishes it wasn’t an issue in the first place. “It would be nice if we had one less event every year because the problem was solved,” he says.

RJ Cooper

It’s all about kids for Cooper, owner of the new tasting-menu Rogue 24. A leader of the Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation annual gala, Cooper has offered his culinary expertise for 22 years, as well as served as chairman of its National Culinary Council and founder of its Chefs on Bikes program. More recently he joined the advisory board for the nonprofit Chefs as Parents to improve the quality of food in school lunches.

Cooper sees community service as something to incorporate into his business, rather than a line item on an expense report. As part of his holistic approach to philanthropy and the restaurant industry, one of his goals for 2012 is to involve his entire staff in a partnership with a child-focused nonprofit that shares his perspective. While he’s open to switching nonprofits over time, he wants his restaurant’s philanthropy work to be a team effort rather than the work of the head chef. “A lot goes with it,” he says. “It’s not just about giving gift certificates.” How fundraising is conducted is important to him, as well as how the restaurant/ philanthropy relationship impacts restaurants, nonprofits and the community as a whole.

Why the emphasis on children? ‘They’re the best. They’re our future,” Cooper says, “and they’re innocent.”

Eric Ziebold

The executive chef of CityZen in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel just completed his four-course dinner and wine pairing for last month’s Joan Hisaoka Gala to support the event. The appeal of this gala, Ziebold says, is that its proceeds support the work of Life with Cancer and Smith Center, two nonprofits that support those who are fighting and surviving the disease. Ziebold also felt a strong connection with Joan Hisaoka, who lost the fight to cancer in 2008, through her public relations support of the restaurant industry.

Connection and collaboration are central to Ziebold’s philanthropic work, and this was most evident this year after the March earthquake in Japan. Wanting to help in the relief efforts there, he and his staff quickly realized that they could raise more awareness and funds by working together rather than pursuing separate projects. Together, they partnered with the Asia Society and Washington Life Magazine to host a dinner and auction to raise funds for Relief International’s efforts in Japan. Through ticket sales and silent and live auction items, Ziebold’s team raised $70,000 that went directly to Relief International’s operations there.

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