Friday, July 22, 2005 | Chefs get lots of invitations. Most of the high-end ones in town could be at a fashionable event most every weekend. And they could be cooking a very pricey dinner in your home most weekends as well. As a food and restaurant consultant, I ask myself frequently how important is it for clients to take part in these events. When you factor in the time away from the restaurant and the cost of the food to be given away, this is a large commitment for small independent restaurants. And since most of these fancy events take place on Saturdays, even restaurants that have ample staffing to cover for the missing chef, often cannot soothe the ruffled feathers of customers expecting the “famous” chef to be in the restaurant for service.

Chefs taking part in high-end charitable events have been popular for several decades. In San Diego, the University of California, San Diego has been famous for its Celebrities Cookoff for the UCSD Cancer Center for almost 20 years. When it first began, local chefs begged to take part. The same was true for Mama’s Kitchen and The Great Chefs of San Diego. But now, with every charitable organization in town looking for restaurants to participate, it becomes a question of how many events are too many, and just what is the restaurant getting out of it?

Although all chefs want to give back to the community that supports them, they also realize that the publicity generated from the events helps drive their business. Pictures in magazines and newspapers, television and radio interviews put the chefs in the public eye, and as any good publicist would tell you, “That’s what is important.”

But as times change, and organizations realize the draw of celebrity chefs, the drain on the restaurant business is very real. The promises for media coverage to lure chefs in are often empty. Celebrity chef events are old news. The media is far more interested in new buzz. And event organizers are demanding more and more from participants in order to compete with other local events. Auctioning a dinner with the chef in a private home for a specific number of people is a common request from event organizers these days.

So what are the chefs and events to do with this double-edged sword? A few suggestions to both sides:

For the event planners, broaden your horizons. Don’t always ask the same chefs. The ones you read about all the time are being asked by every organization in town. They can’t do them all. And who knows what talent you will discover when you start looking around. Undiscovered talent is much more willing to go the extra mile for you just to prove they can compete with the big boys. Most chefs from downtown are not interested in events in North County or vice versa. Do whatever you can to make the chef’s job at the event easier. Have plenty of help for them. Make sure it is easy to get food and equipment to the food station. Be specific about exactly what you need, and don’t make promises to them that you cannot keep.

As for the chefs, you can’t do everything. Decide how many events per quarter you will do, and stick to your decision. Don’t always do the same events. Spread yourself around so more people get to know you. Don’t do events only for publicity; neither you nor the event has any control over the media and what appears in print or on television. Be the very best you can be at every event you choose to do. Don’t cut corners. Talk to the guests and enjoy the public opportunity. When expectations on both sides become more realistic everyone is happier. San Diego has plenty of events and more than enough chef talent to go around.

Pamela J. Wischkaemper is a local food consultant and is the founder of San Diego Gastronomically Correct, a group that goes on the road twice a year to promote the San Diego restaurant industry. The only criterion for membership is having cooked at the James Beard House in New York. Nineteen chefs in San Diego are members.

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