After 5 Years, CFF’s Passion for Food & Wine Is Stronger than Ever

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The Schola team preps a course at Passion for Food & Wine in 2015
The Schola team preps a course at Passion for Food & Wine in 2015

When Baltimore’s best chefs join forces in the kitchen, the meals they create tend to be fantastic. Next Thursday, when they gather out of the kitchen, in a ballroom at the Four Seasons Hotel, the food they cook will taste spectacular, as always. But even better, that food will be part of event that raises awareness – and lots of money – for a great cause, the Maryland Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

That event is Passion for Food & Wine, a party that’s now in its fifth year.

Five years ago, when a small group of Harbor East chefs decided to do something to raise money for CFF, they knew they wanted to do something a little different from the standard food-oriented fundraiser. They wanted to work together – to truly collaborate – and for the end result to be more engaging than a party thrown in a big room, with chefs stationed in corners, serving bites of this or that.

The traditional model is a successful one, but with the blessing of CFF, that small crew of chefs decided to experiment. “CFF got really adventurous and said, ‘What happens if we put a chef with 12 people and they cook whatever they want? And what if that’s happening at tables around the room?’” explains Jerry Pellegrino, co-owner of the cooking school Schola and one of those original few chefs.

Pellegrino was one of the original chefs to participate in the event, which grew to include 17 chefs by 2014. “All the chefs that participated that first year were so excited about the format that by the next year, there was a waiting list and chefs really wanted to be in on it,” he says. This year, each chef will prepare a four-course tasting menu for a dozen guests, and each course will be paired with complementary wines.

This year, Pellegrino will step away from his table, ceding the space so that newcomers, including Chef Mark Levy from Magdalena and Chef Steve Monnier from Aromes, can join in the fun for the first time.

“It gets bigger and crazier every year,” he says. “We try to include as many chefs as possible. We’re creating a community.”

“Bringing in new restaurants is always cool,” says Wit & Wisdom chef Zack Mills, another longtime participant. “It’s a lot of fun to teach the new guys what’s going on with this.”

Much of that, Mills says, involves logistics. “The funny thing is that the hardest part about this is cooking a gourmet tasting menu at a small six-food table,” he comments. The chefs work as a team to pull the party together, meeting on a regular basis prior to the event, and have been involved in everything from procuring donations to room layout logistics.

During the party, a Four Seasons ballroom is transformed into a culinary showplace. Dining tables are set up so that guests can watch the chefs as they cook, chatting with them and asking questions along the way. There’s a lot of joking, too – both between guests and between chefs.

This year, since he hung up his tongs, Pellegrino won’t be at one of those tables, but he will remain an active participant. He and Aldo’s Sergio Vitale (another longtime participant who is giving up his table this year) will act as “chefs at large” during the event, hopping from table to table. And as the meal ends, they’ll take the stage for a live auction. (A silent auction also takes place, starting during the pre-dinner cocktail hour.)

Last year, Passion for food & Wine raised over $300,000 for CFF. This year, Pellegrino says the goal is $350,000 – though he says he’d personally like to see climb to $400,000.

He could very well get his wish. In addition to money raised through table sales and the silent auction, the live auction run by Pellegrino and Vitale generates a huge amount of interest – and big contributions. Auctioned items include private dinners and impressive wines, as well as some truly unique packages.

This past year, Pellegrino and Vitale traveled to Napa Valley for several days, to act as personal chefs for the winners of one auction item – a vacation in the Napa home of wine distributor and Baltimorean Gus Kalaris.

This year’s prizes include treats like a private dinner in the Aldo’s wine cellar, a VIP experience at Camden Yards, a weekend at The Ivy hotel, including lunch and dinner, and three nights at the Cupecoy Beach Club in St. Maarten, with meals cooked by La Cuchara chef Ben Lefenfeld.

Both at the event and later, when they’re cooking for the high bidders, the chefs have a great time. It’s fun, they say, to get together outside of their respective restaurant kitchens and to create memorable meals.

But even more importantly, they’re moved by the cause. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic lung disease that limits people’s ability to breath and progresses over time. Right now, there are more than 30,000 people in America living with CF. Three-quarters of patients are diagnosed by the age of two.

Massive strides have been made in CF treatment over the past several decades. In the 1950s, children with CF rare lived to be school-age. Today, the median predicted survival age is almost 40 and, thanks largely to the efforts of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, a cure is on the horizon.

Nearly all the money raised by CFF goes directly into disease research; the organization supports a wide range of research programs exploring different therapeutic options. In 1989, scientists supported by CFF discovered the gene defect that causes CF. Over the past several years, a handful of drugs targeting CF infections have received FDA approval and there are currently about 40 treatments in the development pipeline.

“Unlike so many diseases that affect children, with CF, you can see the ‘bad guy’ and the bad guy is going to lose in the end,” says Pellegrino. “Not that it’s over, but we’re on the last episode. That’s what’s so phenomenal about CF. There’s an end in sight. We can see the end of this and that’s kind of amazing.”

This year’s Passion for Food and Wine takes place on Thursday, September 8. The dinner is sold out, but for more information and a complete list of participating restaurants, visit the event’s website. 

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