Sonoma County chefs cooked and raised funds with ‘comforting and restorative' meals

After thousands of residents lost their homes, the local food community came together with huge events that raised nearly $700,000.|

After the firestorm and the devastation left in its path, local chefs and foodies have contributed to relief efforts by focusing on the place that incites creativity: The kitchen.

On one level, this has meant food preparation on a granular scale –– chefs and foodies coming together to cook basic meals for families that have lost everything. On another level, it has meant something far more grandiose –– huge events that raised nearly $700,000 for relief efforts and the people they serve.

Regardless of the size and scope of these efforts, the goal has been the same: To help.

“In times of turmoil, people always seem to go back to basics. They need shelter and food,” said Dustin Valette, chef and owner of Valette restaurant in Healdsburg. “There’s no reason why the food (displaced) people are getting can’t be some of the best food in the county.”

Valette knows a thing or two about post-fire charity efforts. In the immediate aftermath of the fires, he snapped into action, organizing a number of North County chefs to prepare parts of meals he then assembled and distributed to regional shelters. He also donated prepared meals to first responders such as firefighters and police officers.

More recently, in early December, Valette was one of the chefs who helped organize Rise Up Sonoma, a big-ticket fundraiser that featured some of the best food and wine in the Bay Area (more than 30 restaurants and wineries were represented).

Tickets for Rise Up started at $500 per person, and the event drew chefs ranging from Perry Hoffman of Healdsburg Shed and Mark Stark of Bird and the Bottle to celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, who was there as a spectator.

All told, according to Tony Lombardi, one of the organizers, Rise Up raised more than $550,000, which was distributed evenly to six charities: the Care Relief Fund from Restaurants Care, the Redwood Credit Union Community Fund, UndocuFund for fire relief in Sonoma County, Homes for Sonoma, Rebuild Wine Country and Burners without Borders, which is trying to launch a village of shipping container homes.

“Going in, we hoped to raise a good amount but really had no idea how we’d do,” said Lombardi, who also owns Lombardi Wines in Santa Rosa. “We were blown away by the support we got.”

Lombardi added that Rise Up organizers already are discussing repeating the event later this year.

Rise Up hasn’t been the only major chef-driven fundraising event. Another fundraiser, dubbed The Grateful Table, raised just less than $150,000, and gave participants a chance to nab one of 500 seats at a 500-foot harvest table that straddled Napa and Sonoma counties in the Carneros, just before Thanksgiving.

The Grateful Table event attracted big-name chefs such as Tyler Florence, Chris Cosentino of Acacia House in Saint Helena and Ken Frank of La Toque in Napa, among others. The event attracted attendees from all over the world, as well. While the majority of guests were local (some of the tickets were earmarked for first responders and victims), at least one came from Japan.

The meal at this event was notable. It included clam chowder, fall squash soup, fried Brussels sprouts, leafy greens, butternut squash risotto, Sonoma turkey and lamb and sticky fig cake in a jar.

Proceeds were split evenly between four community groups working on fire recovery efforts: the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund, Sonoma County Resilience Fund, Mendocino County Disaster Fund and the California Restaurant Association Foundation.

Ryan Becker, a spokesman for Visit California, the regional marketing organization that produced the event, said this kind of collaboration and cooperation among chefs is rare but very powerful. He added that iconic images of the long table in the vineyards became a sign of unity after the fires, images that told the world that Wine Country would survive.

“Our mission is to keep people coming to the region and spending their money,” said Becker. “We need our communities to showcase that (their) community spirit is alive and well.”

Both Rise Up and The Grateful Table were high-profile events that required serious planning and involved celebrity participants. Other chef-driven efforts to assist with fire relief have been a bit more organic, a bit subtler.

Perhaps the best example is Sonoma Family Meal. This effort, launched by Press Democrat food writer Heather Irwin, grew out of a desire to care for fire victims by preparing them top-quality meals for free.

Irwin collaborated on the project with chefs that included John Franchetti, owner of Franchetti’s Wood-Fired Kitchen in Santa Rosa. He not only contributed some of the food for the meals but also donated his 80-seat restaurant as the place where some of the meals could be administered.

“It just seemed like a perfect fit,” he said. “We had food, they needed it. We had the space, they needed that, too. Everywhere we turned, (Sonoma Family Meal) had needs and we had resources to share. The bottom line is that we just want to help people out.”

Other examples include the No Pay Café in Sonoma, which was started by Sheana Davis, owner of Epicurean Connections. Also known as Café Gratis, the effort attracted the support of Facebook, SF Chefs Fight Fire, Kendall-Jackson and Sonoma Kiwanis to fill food orders for local nonprofits and deliver meals each week.

At Campo Fina in Healdsburg, chef and owner Ari Rosen also has hosted a handful of one-night fundraising dinners, and will continue to do so throughout the year. At the Trading Post in Cloverdale, chef and owner Erik Johnson is doing the same. Johnson, who also participated in Rise Up and has expressed interest in getting involved with Sonoma Family Meal, said that food is the perfect object for charity because it is a great unifier.

“Food is comforting and restorative,” Johnson said. “It relieves pressure in people’s lives. After what we’ve all been through, this is important. To me, it also means there’s no greater calling right now than to be (a great chef) doing this for the community.”

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