Is Charitable Eating Overstretching Local Chefs and Diners?

Don't bother looking for Dean Fearing at his restaurants next weekend.

Fearing will be at The Joule next Friday for The Big Red, a culinary extravaganza benefiting the North Texas Food Bank. He'll reappear the next night at the Dallas Zoo for its annual fundraiser. And if do-gooders are still hungry for more, they'll find him the following Thursday at The Longest Chef's Table, an event for the Scottish Rite Hospital.

Dallas is awash in edible philanthropy. Local eaters have opportunities almost every week to plunk down $150 or more for hors d'oeuvres from the city's leading chefs, some of whom say their time and budgets are being overstretched by charitable culinary events.

"It's definitely reached a threshold," says John Tesar, a consultant for DRG Concepts who's also on the Longest Table's line-up. "I don't want to prevent anyone from having a party, but there needs to be some thought on how many more of these we can create."

Tesar's supportive of established benefits with built-in audiences, such as the Signature Chefs Auction that the March of Dimes has been hosting since 1989, but is skeptical upstart fundraisers will succeed in making money off the same crop of chefs.

"It's starting to numb people," Tesar says. "I don't know how you get people to spend $300 to get a taste of something that's mediocre at best. I like doing events because we get out there and have fun, but anything over $150 for not a seated dinner is obnoxious."

According to Tesar, the mindset behind the overpriced culinary fundraiser doesn't square with the current recession, which has affected consumers and chefs alike. Few restaurants can afford to foot the staffing and supplies bill associated with participating in every benefit that comes knocking.

"Our marketing directors or our bosses will tell us 'choose wisely'," Tesar says. "And we're really not able to say no because we look like we're cheap."

If a chef's not a member of the Food Network's family of stars, he's unlikely to have his costs covered, Tesar says. Rather than luxuriate in private jets and hotel rooms stocked with fruit baskets and flowers, local celebrity chefs often have to deal with organizers' demands for free gift certificates and promises to barbecue for auction winners on a certain day.

Still, chefs sign on, mostly in the name of self-promotion.

"It keeps your name out front," says Tesar, who annually organizes the Burgers and Burgundy event for DIFFA. The party, priced at $75 a person, raised $30,000 this year. "Being out there, sharing my food, it has value."

But, he adds: "If people don't know who the local chefs are by now, one more event's not going to help. Stephan Pyles needs another event like a fish needs a bicycle."

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