Ernest Hooper: Top chefs try to squeeze food for the hungry from every meal

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Ted Dorsey, owner and executive chef of The Mill in St. Petersburg, said every restaurant strives to maximize food preparation and avoid waste, even when it means taking the spatula and scraping every drop of that special sauce out of the bowl.

It’s certainly a matter of efficiency, but another factor drives the chefs and restaurateurs. Food waste haunts them because they know someone out there is going hungry. In greater Tampa Bay, one out of seven adults lives with food insecurity.

It’s this altruistic spirit that helps fuel the fun of the Epicurean Hotel’s third annual Epic Chef Showdown. Make no mistake, the contest, which kicked off with the first of seven weekly showdowns at the Epicurean’s splendid kitchen theater on Monday, stands as a culinary treat.

Imagine watching a show like the Food Network’s Chopped while being served a coursed meal with wine pairings, and you’ll understand the festive nature of the event.

The gathering on Monday pitted The Mill’s Richard Bergendale against Jeff Thorns-berry from Locale Market, each preparing two courses for a celebrity judging panel using secret ingredients: shrimp and turkey bacon for the first course, Hershey’s chocolate syrup and yellow-fin tuna for the second entree. Adding to the fun: a 30-minute clock.

Other participating restaurants include: Ava, Armani’s, Mise en Place, Noble Crust, Parkshore Grill and Rooster & the Till.

Thornsberry, who bested Bergendale, will join winners from the other three weeks — July 17, July 24 and July 31 — in semifinal rounds on Aug. 7 and Aug. 14. The finale will be held on Aug. 21. A limited number of tickets to the public are available for $90 (finale is $120) at EpicChefTampaBay.com.

But the event is so much more than a treat for the 40-plus people able to squeeze into the kitchen. Proceeds go to Feeding Tampa Bay and its mission of feeding the 700,000 people in our 10-county area who awake each day wondering if they’ll have a nutritious meal.

“When you put numbers in front of people, numbers don’t lie,” said Epicurean general manager Kevin Scott. “It hits home. We thought this would be a creative way to bring awareness and start the conversation.”

One of the numbers that strike a chord: One out of every four children lives with food insecurity. Uriah’s Urban Farms owner David Smiles, one of the sponsors, said that statistic grabs him every time he looks at his own four children.

And it’s that heartfelt emotion Feeding Tampa Bay executive director Thomas Mantz hopes to grow in everyone. With awareness being the nonprofit’s biggest challenge, the event is being live-streamed on Feeding Tampa Bay’s YouTube and Facebook channels, with host Topher Morrison reminding people that most of the food Feeding Tampa Bay gives away goes into the homes of those living just above the poverty line.

“Most of the people have homes, have jobs,” Mantz said. “They’re just struggling. It doesn’t mean they’re not working hard, it doesn’t mean they don’t care, it doesn’t mean they aren’t committed or dedicated. It just means their salaries don’t add up to their obligations.”

But what the event best represents is a chance for chefs to match their culinary passions with their heart for helping people. They understand better than most the meal is more than just sustenance. People aren’t just going without food, they’re missing out on the spiritual, psychological and emotional values that come with gathering together for a meal.

Feeding Tampa Bay’s mission, and the work of Trinity Cafe, which feeds the food insecure in two Tampa locations on a daily basis, has given me odd perspective when I dine out.

Every time others leave behind plates of barely-touched food, it makes me cringe because I know someone out there would devour it. Restaurants have no choice but to throw it away.

This doesn’t mean you have to clean every plate or take home those fries sure to linger in your car for a couple of days.

But if everyone committed to donating to Feeding Tampa Bay every time they left a half-eaten meal behind, well, that would be truly epic.

That’s all I’m saying.

Ernest Hooper: Top chefs try to squeeze food for the hungry from every meal 07/13/17 [Last modified: Thursday, July 13, 2017 10:34am]; Tampa Bay Times