Two chefs are strolling along the downtown streets. "Does Jimmy come to your back door?" asks one, miming a jerky little walk. "That's not Jimmy," replies the other, picking up the same jerky walk and miming a cap on the head. "That's Edward. He's been coming for years. We make him sandwiches out of the ends of the pate."
Jimmy/Edward is at the back door of every eating establishment in America, but charity walks in through the front door, too.
"We get two or three requests a day," says Tom Kaplan of Spago. Stephan Pyles of Routh Street Cafe in Dallas says, "We could do benefits a couple of nights a week."
Could, and often do, for when you're in the restaurant business, saying no can be difficult. How can you refuse the request of a customer who habitually drops hundreds of dollars on dinner, especially when the request is made in the name of a good cause?
But chefs do more than simply ante up when they are asked for charity. They are becoming increasingly activist, banding together to raise money for causes in which they believe. Last week in separate charity events in San Francisco and New York, chefs from all over the country raised more than $1 million. And this time they were not merely contributors but the driving force behind both events.
Although some chefs cooked for both dinners, the two events could hardly have been more different. They not only raised money for different causes, but they did it in different styles. There was one thing, however, shared by both: a similar spirit.
"Sometimes we ask ourselves why we are doing this," says New York food consultant Clark Wolf, who was involved in San Francisco's Aid & Comfort benefit and New York's Chefs Tribute to James Beard to Benefit Citymeals-on-Wheels. "The answer is easy. We've just got to. The food community has developed enormous impact, there's no way the government can cover every base, and we simply have to help out."
"San Francisco has always been known for great artists, great compassion and great events," said Joel Grey, as he opened the evening by singing "Wilkommen" from "Cabaret." By anybody's estimation, Aid & Comfort, the San Francisco Restaurant Benefit for People Fighting AIDS, was a rousing success on all three fronts. "This isn't just a dinner," said the woman sitting next to me. "This is an evening I'll be talking about for the rest of my life."
It was as if the entire city of San Francisco had been looking for a way to do something for people who are suffering from acquired immune deficiency syndrome. When Vince Calcagno, owner of Zuni Cafe, decided to take action, he discovered that chefs all over the city were eager to pitch in.
They were to find that they were not alone. Writers, printers, artists and performers wanted to be part of the event. Before they were through, the mayor had proclaimed Aid & Comfort Day, and in addition to a nine-course sit-down dinner for more than 1,000 people, they had a full-scale concert on their hands. For good measure, they threw in an extraordinary portfolio of prints, poems and recipes to commemorate the event.
From the moment you entered Pier 3 at San Francisco's Fort Mason Center for the $250-a-head dinner, it was clear that this was going to be more than just another rubber-chicken dinner.
Japanese set designer Eiko Ishioka (she was responsible for the look of the film "Mishima") had worked wonders with the enormous barren space. Walking through a black Mylar tunnel, you passed candles floating on a man-made pond. Then you burst out into a bright white space where parachutes dangled from the ceiling and the floor was painted a vivid red. Hundreds of waiters (so many waiters from the various restaurants volunteered that organizers had to cut it off at 350) circulated with champagne and hors d'oeuvres while music played.
The room was so filled with good feeling that, as the evening wore on, it hardly seemed astonishing that the restaurants could create food in a space that has no kitchens (four were improvised on the spot, each capable of making 250 dishes at a time) or that the food was as good as any you've ever eaten in a restaurant.
Nor did it seem amazing that waiters who had never worked together were dashing the food to the tables so efficiently that it came out in uninterrupted waves.
I know there had been problems with deciding the menu, finding enough plates and forks and bowls, even with simple logistics like getting someone to iron the performers' clothes; none of that showed. The evening ran so smoothly that the whole pier seemed to lift off like a huge balloon and float out over the Bay. When the entertainment (televised on KQED) began, all 1,040 people exploded into applause.
San Francisco audiences are notoriously generous toward performers, but this time it went both ways.