Usually, eating and hunger are at opposite ends of the comfort scale, but for 16 years they have blended harmoniously at the local Taste of the Nation fund-raiser.
On Sunday night more than 1,000 people sampled dishes and beverages at 29 stations manned by local restaurateurs at Fat Fish Blue in Perrysburg as part of an effort to end childhood hunger.
The event supports Share Our Strength, the national organization with a mission to end child hunger. Culinary events with similar formats are held throughout the country. In April and May, Tastes are scheduled in Dallas, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Boston, Charlotte, and New York City.
Gus Mancy, chairman of the local restaurant committee and a partner in the four Mancy-owned Toledo restaurants that were represented Sunday night, explained the Taste's focus. "We turn food into real dollars," he said. "It's the best way to raise $100,000 in one evening. Every chef takes pride to present a great product."
Mr. Mancy reminded the holders of the $150 tickets that all the food and the help are donated.
Seventy percent of the money raised stays in Toledo and will be divided among four agencies: the Toledo Day Nursery, Aurora House, Toledo Grows, and Toledo Northwestern Ohio Food Bank. Ten percent is given to the Columbus Food Bank and 20 percent goes to the national organization in Washington.
It was evident that the chefs are friends as well as competitors as they took quick breaks from their stations to dash to others through the thick crowd of people to taste other products.
Celebrity chefs Celina Tio of Kansas City and Chef Andy Husbands of Boston prepared upscale foods that drew attention and raves. They praised Toledo hospitality and credited the Penta County Career Center students who assisted them. Both travel extensively on behalf of the child-hunger cause.
Chef Husbands, the owner of Tremont and Sister Sorel in South Boston and the recipient of numerous honors, explained his dedication to the national cause as paying back for his personal successes. His passion for barbecues brought him first place in the prestigious Kansas City Royal competition, and his cookbook, The Fearless Chef shows that he leans heavily toward bold flavors. Here, he proved his interest in freshness. A stack of crisp Boston Bibb lettuce leaves at his station were the refreshing wrappers for highly seasoned beef and sauces.
Chef Tio presented two samples of popular choices at Julian, her Kansas City restaurant named for her grandfather and Julia Child, the two people who inspired her to go into the restaurant business after she earned a degree in science. "I didn't go to culinary school," she said,as she offered samples of buttery popcorn shrimp on a base of smooth panna cotta with a surprise topping of popcorn.
One example of overindulgence at one stop was at the station of the host restaurant, where JR Grady, executive chef for the Fat Fish Blue chain, explained that his grits and bread pudding specialties are Alabama-inspired and straight from his mother's and grandmother's kitchen where he grew up. The grits cooked with cheese were topped with shrimp, Southern-style, and the bread pudding is made with cinnamon rolls. While many chefs decided to prepare 400 or 500 portions of a food from their menu, others use the Taste as a launching pad for new creations to determine through crowd reaction if they would fly on a regular basis.
Mancy's Italian introduced an unusual style of pasta that has been in the experimental stage for a year. The Italian name for the dumplings, according to George Mancy, is "gundi." He describes them as "pillows of heaven" that he first tasted in New York City and then returned with his executive chef Matt Lawrence.
Chef Lawrence, who nicknames the pasta "naked ravioli," worked diligently to formulate gundi in Mancy's Monroe Street kitchen for the Taste. Sheep's milk ricotta is the secret; it is the costly and hard-to-get ingredient that makes the gundi authentic.
Kris Wielgopolski and Lara Martinez, who operate Two Seasoned Chicks, a Maumee catering company, directed their creative ideas for the Taste into a spring theme. If there had been a contest for best presentation, the Chicks likely would have won for their Mini Thai Milkshakes blooming in giant containers of wheat grass they grew for the occasion. They wrapped the glasses in calyx leaves, and the milkshake concoctions included mango and coconut juices, cilantro, basil, and cardamom blended with vanilla to make a small but mighty dessert drink.
The Taste is not a contest, but it mirrors the area's diverse choices in food service. On the other end of the giant tent that housed the food and wine stations from the cheerful spring setting, City Q Barbeque displayed its kind of food with a whole roasted pig.
And after sampling such upscale offerings as salmon seviche, pea sprout salad, pulled pork in fried wontons, and black sesame seed-encrusted seared tuna, what should appear on a sampler plate but old-fashioned short ribs and smashed potatoes. It was from Premier Catering, and proved that homestyle food still lives amidst all the new culinary schemes.
Beth Kennedy, co-owner of the Evans Street Station in Tecumseh, Mich., explained why she and her chef, Alan Merhar, hauled the many ingredients for their favorite appetizer of shrimp and chorizo over fried sweet potatoes to Perrysburg.
"I enjoy the vibes I get from the people who come to our station, and the Toledo hosts really make you feel appreciated," she said.
One Taste area is off-limits to ticket holders. At the end of the evening, after the last slice of Georgio's chocolate mousse torte and other sweets had been served, the chefs gathered in the Chef's Lounge for a glass of wine, a much-needed and deserved massage, conversation, and plans for next year's taste.
Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor.
Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.