If you’re a chef, requests to participate in charity fundraisers come fast and furious. If you’re a chef with a conscience, you say yes to as many of them as you can.
But prepping a thousand or so portions and gearing up to serve them offsite is both expensive and time consuming. That’s why, more often than not, tasting events aren’t places where you can expect to sample a restaurant’s best work. Good cause, sure. Best food ever? Not likely.
Except at Feastival.
The annual FringeArts gala, which raises most of the money needed to put on the citywide Fringe Festival, is renowned among the party set for its incredible food. That’s the opinion of everyone from arts patrons who attend to chefs who participate to the founder of the event, restaurateur Audrey Taichman.
“I don’t know why,” says Taichman, who owns Twenty Manning Grill, Audrey Claire and Cook. “I mean, when I did other events it was always like, ‘Ok, I’ll donate, I’ll put out a chip with some tartare on it.’ But in our first year, everybody came and it was just unbelievable.”
That first event, in 2010, sold just over 200 tickets — not many. But even so, it raised an eye-popping $235,000. Attendance and revenue have grown steadily — last year’s party hosted more than 1,000 guests and pulled in a cool $515,000
Part of the reason for the smashing success is that attendees know there will be seriously great food.
“Feastival is superior,” says Ben Puchowitz, chef and co-owner at Cheu Noodle Bar and Bing Bing Dim Sum. “No offense to other events.”
Why? “The combination of great food, music and art somehow creates this big ball of energy that everyone in attendance can feel. It’s like magic fairy dust that makes everything better to the senses.”
At Feastival, live acrobatic performances are always part of the evening — something that stems from and highlights its connection with the arts scene.
“Most fundraising events are in ballrooms of corporate hotels,” says Sam Mink of Oyster House and Mission taqueria. “I also think Starr and Solomonov can command better vendors and have a great reputation in Philly,” he adds.
Right. At the beginning, when Taichman told FringeArts director Nick Stuccio that she’d find a way to help him raise desperately needed money, she reached out to a couple of colleagues for help: Stephen Starr and Mike Solomonov. Both of them agreed right away to be co-hosts.
“I called [Stephen] and I was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got this thing, it’s for the FringeArts.’ He’s like, ‘Whatever you need, kid,'” she remembers. “And Solo was just like, ‘Yeah, dude, I’m in!'”
Still, Taichman was the brains behind the whole thing, the driving force that’s made it happen each September for the past seven years.
“Everything started with Audrey,” says Bistrot La Minette chef Peter Woolsey, who also has a relationship with FringeArts: His second restaurant, La Peg, is embedded in the organization’s Columbus Avenue headquarters. “Her vision of collecting a curated list of chefs to participate was brilliant. She has played an integral part in creating the tight knit community of chefs in this city.”
“The camaraderie that exists in our restaurant community here in Philly is truly unrivaled in a large market,” says Joncarl Lachman of Noord, Neuf and The Dutch. “It just feels like everyone is putting on their best face to support the arts — and show that we truly have one of the best restaurant communities in the country.”
That the event is put together by people inside the industry, who understand the pressures restaurants face and how hard it is to disrupt the regular schedule, even for charity, might have a lot to do with the quality of the dishes.
“I’ve never felt pressure to bring a certain number of portions (to Feastival),” says Nick Macri, chef-owner at La Divisa Meats. “The organizers understand that not every guest is going to show up at every table. So you can put more effort into a smaller number of portions.”
Occasionally, those chef-participants also get a chance to try their colleagues’ creations.
“I don’t really get to walk around and eat much,” says Jeremy Nolen of Brauhaus Schmitz and Whetstone, “but the thing that was memorable was Jason Cichonski’s scallop noodles.” Those noodles, which are actually made out of the shellfish, showed up again in a “Top Chef” finale, when Cichonski made them to help Nick Elmi take the Season 11 title.
Not everyone has time to sample, even though they try. “Often I only get to taste the food at the neighboring tables around me,” says Woolsey. “But I will say that Feastival does have the best collection of Philadelphia chefs of any event of the year.
“The quality of the restaurants being presented is really the top tier of Philadelphia dining.”
Feastival 2016 takes place 7 to 10 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 29, at the FringeArts building. Tickets ($300) are available here.