Compassion is on each chef's menu as fundraiser returns to in-person format
West Valley Community Services event March 31
It can be argued that Chef A.J. Szenda knew his calling early in life. He applied to the Culinary Institute of America when he was 14, but was politely told he had to finish high school first.
He did so, and was accepted to the CIA shortly after he graduated. Since then, Szenda's 40-year career has spanned the South Bay. He's worked at Saratoga restaurants Le Mouton Noir, the Plumed Horse as sous chef then executive chef, and Viaggio as executive chef and partner. He spent seven years as executive chef at San Jose's Almaden Golf and Country Club before joining Apple's chef team in Cupertino, where he was one of the opening senior executive chefs at Apple Park in 2017.
Szenda, who currently serves as culinary director for Bon Appetit Management Company at Palo Alto Networks in Santa Clara, says giving back to his local community is part of a chef's job description. To that end, he is one of three chefs participating in this year's Chefs of Compassion fundraiser for West Valley Community Services (WVCS).
The March 31 event will see Szenda and fellow chefs Billy Hazra and Leonardo Ramirez create dishes solely from ingredients found in the WVCS pantry. Hazra is executive chef at the British Bankers Club in Menlo Park. Ramirez is the founder of the Charapa Project, a San Franciscobased purveyor of Peruvian food.
After two years as a virtual event, the friendly cooking competition will be in held person March 31 at Mountain View's Computer History Museum, where participants and a panel of judges will vote on the best dish.
Besides raising money for WVCS, Chefs of Compassion is meant to honor those who help the Cupertino-based nonprofit provide food and rent support to residents of that city, as well as to clients in Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, Saratoga and West San Jose. Longtime Cupertino residents Chuck and Nancy Harper are being honored as community leaders, and the Sobrato Family Foundation is being recognized for its community philanthropy.
The Harpers were both involved in the original development and construction of Vista Village at WVCS — then referred to as Cupertino Community Services — 20 years ago. Nancy served as a WVCS board member from 2014 to 2020 and is still a regular pantry volunteer, while Chuck has been a member of the WVCS Audit Committee since 2014.
The Harpers' community service extends to other local organizations such as Rebuilding Together Silicon Valley, Via West's Operation Snowflake and Cupertino Rotary efforts. They've also supported wheelchair delivery and neo-natal equipment delivery in various communities in Mexico.
WVCS has been a longtime beneficiary of the Sobrato Family Foundation, part of the Mountain View-based Sobrato Organization. Via Sobrato Philanthropies, the foundation has supported WVCS efforts beginning with the construction of Vista Village through the nonprofit's recent Lift Us Up campaign.
After a 40-year career that's included stints in various Saratoga restaurants and as a member of Apple's chef team in Cupertino, A.J. Szenda says being a chef is “not just a job, it's a way of life.” Szenda, who currently serves as culinary director for Bon Appetit Management Company at Palo Alto Networks, is one of three chefs participating in this year's Chefs of Compassion fundraiser for West Valley Community Services on March 31. After two years as a virtual event, the friendly cooking competition will be live at Mountain View's Computer History Museum.