Chefs to compete for a worthy cause

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On Sept. 1, five Rochester chefs will compete in the fourth Chef Throwdown hosted by local food content creator Stephanie Hanna of Sip and Savour Rochester, raising funds for Open Door Mission.  However, unlike previous years, this contest is virtual.

The central element of the Chef Throwdown is the focus on a single ingredient. This summer, Hanna partnered with the New York Beef Council to challenge chefs to cook a beef dish.

“I wanted to showcase dishes already on participating chefs’ menus, simple dishes that ticket holders are able to create at home,” Hanna says. “People are able to support local restaurants, taste their dishes and vote for the dish they want to learn how to create.”

Chefs and restaurants participating in the Throwdown are Steven Lara of Ox and Stone, Alem Mengesha of Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant, Cruz Nieves of Rella, Trish Aser of Brown Hound Bistro, and Margherita Smith of The Saucey Chef

“Something (that is) important to me is making sure the group is a diverse group of talented chefs,” Hanna says. 

Since Aug. 15, the Rochester community could support these restaurants during Hanna’s version of Restaurant Week by purchasing signature beef dishes. They can then vote for their favorites through Hanna’s Instagram page by Aug. 22. Voters will be entered into a raffle to win one of five $25 gift cards to a participating restaurant. 

During the Throwdown, the top two chefs from Hanna’s poll will lead a virtual cooking demonstration via Zoom instructing Chef Throwdown ticket holders on how to make the winning beef dishes. Tickets cost $20 and all proceeds benefit Open Door Mission.

Virtual attendees will then vote for one winning dish. One ticket holder will be randomly chosen to receive a year’s worth of dinners from the winning restaurant, a value of $1,200, sponsored by the New York Beef Council. 

Despite COVID-19 limitations, Hanna was inspired to host a virtual Chef Throwdown this summer to showcase a diverse group of Rochester chefs and restaurants while giving back to those in need. She first developed the idea for the single-ingredient-centric event in 2018 after drawing inspiration from another event that used mystery ingredients from local New York farms to create a special dinner. After brainstorming for the first Chef Throwdown with chefs at Sapori Kitchen and Nosh, Hanna figured out what would work to highlight a single ingredient in a dish.

“I created the event in 2018 to bridge the connection between kitchen and community,” Hanna says. “I’ve always focused on emphasizing who’s behind the scenes in the kitchen, and there are so many great restaurants and chefs in Rochester. I thought … ‘I can do this, I can bring this to Rochester, put my own spin on this and highlight local chefs.’” 

Trish Aser, co-owner of this year’s participating restaurant Brown Hound Bistro at the Memorial Art Gallery, views the contest as an opportunity to advertise while supporting small businesses.

“We’re always trying to support anyone who supports local small businesses,” Aser says. “We love to connect with other businesses and work with social media influencers to further their efforts, while still giving us exposure.”

Brown Hound Bistro, like many other restaurants, recently reopened for business.

“We’re located in a big building; people drive past the MAG without even knowing we’re there. So, this is a great opportunity for us to advertise now that we’ve reopened,” Aser says. “Advertising has moved from traditional advertising to online media and social events, and they’re very successful.” 

Aser also values the Throwdown’s use of local ingredients.

“Local products bring people closer to the source, which is something people are really interested in these days,” she says. “We always like to highlight local products that we incorporate to our menus.”

Aside from bringing visibility to local businesses, Hanna stresses the importance of fusing food with community initiatives. For this Throwdown, Hanna approached Open Door Mission with hopes of bringing meaningful impact to one of Rochester’s smaller nonprofits. A special education teacher at Northwood Elementary School in Hilton, Hanna says she was inspired to give back to Open Door Mission after a positive experience connecting her students with the organization.

“We had Chef Cruz from Rella come in to help kindergarteners make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and our second graders wrote notes of love to put inside the bagged lunches for folks at Open Door Mission,” Hanna says. “It gave the opportunity to be a blessing to whoever receives the lunches.” 

This inspiring connection to community through food and kindness led her to choose Open Door Mission as this year’s featured Chef Throwdown nonprofit. In past years, each participating restaurant was able to choose a nonprofit recipient to donate half of the ticket proceeds. This year, Hanna decided to donate all ticket proceeds to a single charity because of COVID-19’s harsh impacts.

Beef was another deciding factor in choosing Open Door Mission as this year’s recipient. The organization has limited access to the ingredient. 

“With the New York Beef Council being our sponsor, we wanted to give back to the community in a food-based way,” Hanna says. “Food Service Supervisor Jeremy Hinz at Open Door Mission is able to provide many meals to those in need using local ingredients, but unfortunately, beef is costly, so he can’t always include it. This will be a blessing to them because they’re going to use money from the Chef Throwdown to purchase beef to use in their kitchen.”

Brown Hound Bistro is offering its original beef burger for the Chef Throwdown, because of its simple and familiar nature.

“The beef item on our menu is a fantastic burger that’s been on our menu since day one. It features house-made onion jam,” Aser says.

The Throwdown is also an ideal opportunity for Brown Hound Bistro to get involved with charitable initiatives, something Aser’s team doesn’t get to do often as often as she’d like.

“It’s really hard as a small-business owner to be involved in charitable things,” Aser says. “We do fundraisers and small events, but when we can collaborate with other small businesses and individuals who further the reach, we have more impact and better results.”

Robert Mantell is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.

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