Why some of Australia’s top chefs are joining forces for charity.
Cooking a meal to raise money for seriously ill children is a meaningful undertaking for any chef. But for Josh Niland, the head chef and owner of Saint Peter in Sydney, it is particularly significant.
Niland was a recipient of the Starlight Children’s Foundation wish granting program when he was eight years old.
“I had a childhood cancer and Starlight gave me and my family a wish,” Niland says. “My wish took us to Chicago, where we were pampered with limos, five star accommodation and tickets to watch the Chicago Bulls play on Christmas Eve.”
Niland will take part this year in Starlight’s Five Chefs Dinner, where a quintet of Australia’s best chefs each prepare a course of a five-course degustation menu. “Having watched chefs participate in this dinner I was really hoping that someone would ask me to be involved,” he says.
Charities are often looking for ways to create excitement about raising funds, and as a nation obsessed with food it makes sense that they would call on well-known chefs to help.
For Ronni Kahn, CEO and founder of food rescue charity Ozharvest, there is a natural relationship between chefs and causes. “Chefs are in a service industry,” Kahn says. “They want to make their guests feel special. Chefs provide unique dining experiences, but are also educating people about a cause at the same time.”
Steve Wakerley, CEO of Variety Queensland, agrees. “Chefs love to bring people together through food,” he says. Variety of Chefs is a series of gala dinners held in different states. Funds raised go to Variety’s scholarship program, which helps children who have an existing talent, but also have a disability or are disadvantaged, to follow their dreams.
In July, Variety’s Queensland dinner will bring together chefs including Nick Holloway from Nu Nu in Palm Cove and Ben Williamson from Gerard’s Bistro to prepare a four-course feast for guests.
The line-up at the recent Gold Dinner, an event that supports the Sydney Children’s Hospital in Randwick, was equally starry. Danielle Alvarez of Fred’s and Peter Doyle of Est. were among the Merivale chefs who helped raise over $2 million for paediatric projects. In its two decade history, the event has generated over $25 million.
The Starlight event has been going even longer. It began in 1993, when Armando Percuoco hosted a fundraising dinner at his restaurant, Buon Ricordo. In the following years, some of hospitality’s biggest names – Tetsuya Wakuda, Serge Dansereau, Neil Perry and Janni Kyritsis – joined Percuoco to become the “Five Chefs”. Each year, over $2 million is raised. In its history, that has totalled over $27 million.
Ester’s Mat Lindsay joins the chefs on our cover as chef number five this year. Niland’s participation marks the first time that a child who was granted a Starlight wish has returned to the event as a cook. It’s something that makes Starlight’s CEO Louise Baxter teary. “It’s very humbling and emotional,” she says. For Baxter, the spirit of generosity is what makes the event so special – almost every item is donated.
“The chefs always come into the Starlight Express Room and have an afternoon with the kids and families,” Baxter says. “They might make pasta from scratch or decorate cupcakes. They see firsthand the positive impact of Starlight programs.”
And when chefs are ready to move on, Starlight asks them to find their replacement. “After about a decade of tireless support, Neil Perry, who is a Starlight luminary, replaced himself with Kylie Kwong,” says Baxter. “So we get the next wave of amazing chefs.”
What makes collaboration between chefs and charities so fruitful is the commitment of those behind the stoves.
“The most successful relationships are where the chef has a personal connection to the cause,” says Louise Keys, national manager for events and campaigns with Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF).
JDRF holds national galas with the aim of raising $1.5 million to accelerate breakthroughs in order to cure, treat and prevent type 1 diabetes and its complications.
“We have been very grateful to have been supported by Colin Fassnidge who is closely connected with several JDRF supporters,” says Keys. “Colin has raised over $78,000 through his donation of unique dining experiences.”
Australian chefs are even being enlisted for global initiatives. In March, an array of leading toques from Sydney and Melbourne took part in #Cookforsyria, two sell-out dinners to raise funds for UNICEF and children displaced by the Syrian conflict.
For Niland, so closely connected with Starlight as a child, pulling on his chef whites for the Sydney Five Chefs Dinner will have special resonance.
“I am over the moon to be a part of this year’s dinner,” he says. “They have given me the most positive childhood memory. I am forever in their debt.”