Time isn't free and neither is food. Consider this your guide for to how to ask a chef to donate to your important cause while maintaining sensitivity to their circumstances. 
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A chef places the finishing touches on a tray of canapes
Credit: Getty Images

I was recently asked to donate a couple hundred portions of food to a food conference. No food stipend, just a straight-up donation. This was not unusual. I field similar requests multiple times a week. Historically, this would have been a request I would have readily considered. I had donated food to this same conference for years in a row, prior to the pandemic, and paid my restaurant staff to dish out tasting portions of spicy ahi poke and tofu poke to attendees. My business covered food costs so that my cooks and I could have access to the conference's panels and commune with other cooks in the exact same positions, tasting the food they also donated, served by the staff they also paid. 

But things are a little different this year. I closed my Philadelphia restaurant two years ago. It was a casualty of the pandemic. So I don't have a restaurant anymore. No staff, no kitchen, no feasible way to prepare several hundred bites of food. 

Did the organizers of a food conference not get the memo that restaurants have been through the ringer these past two ugly years? 

During lockdowns, I had some respite from the onslaught of requests for donating my food to charitable events. I still did frequently donate my time, running virtual cooking demos for non-profits I have had long relationships with, raising money for underserved children, disadvantaged culinary students, victims of domestic abuse, and other causes dear to me. 

I had almost forgotten what it was like to field emails and requests through my website for gift card donations, tasting portions, asking me to cook at dine-around events. You know the sort, charity galas and fundraisers that situate dozens of chefs at makeshift stations, searing slivers of meat on induction burners and assembling bite-size pastries in the middle of palm-sized paper plates. The sort of events that charge $150-500 per head, where there's an open bar, a signature cocktail, live music, and some loose sort of competition amongst participating chefs, all in the name of raising money for some important cause. 

If organizers are asking me, surely they're asking others? I checked in with my network of chef friends. 

Chef Diana Widjojo is also experiencing an onslaught of requests, via email, social media, and sometimes both. "They typically ask for anything from a gift card for people to bid on, covering dinner for four, for us to donate 250-750 portions of food," she says. "If the cause is something I believe in and the organizing party has a good history, I will donate either money or my time, so long as I get a tax deduction, a stipend or food costs reimbursed."

Chefs are always there when there's a disaster. Chefs know how to rally a team and feed people. That's what we do. These impulses and talents can easily be mistaken for the notion that chefs can provide services and free food for every cause and event. Liz Einhorn, the founder of Experience Threee (3 e's) has worked on both sides and observes, "It resonates with me that chefs are some of the most nimble and caring and they jump to their feet to support the cause."

Event organizers are still also dangling the notion of exposure. Small business owners are now more desperate than ever to get their names out, to get customers in their doors, and exposure is an enticing but nebulous prize. Marti Lieberman, owner and operator of Mac Mart Mac'n Cheesery says, "Events where we are asked to give out free food simply don't do anything for our business other than use our time, labor, and product without any return on the investment. If they ask for a tray, gift card, in-store meal, we always assess and see if we can make something happen!"

Because trust us, most of the time, we want to make it happen. With all this in mind, here's a guide to how to ask a chef to donate to your important cause while maintaining sensitivity to their circumstances. 

If you invest in the chef, they will invest in you. Go to their restaurants.

Chef Jezabel Careaga says, "When a person has asked for a donation, I reply with the following: Do you have a stipend? Is there a contribution that your organization is looking to make beyond the promotion of my business? Is the expectation a full donation? I've had good conversations, and these have been positive interactions because I make clear that if they are willing to invest on our business, we will invest back. If an organization is willing to offer $300 for a donation worth $800 to help cover food cost and some labor, the compromise is from both sides. I'm willing to work with those that understand that we are helping each other in a more equitable way." 

My husband Ari Miller, who is also a chef and co-owner of Musi, adds to this, saying, "Have you been to my restaurant? Have you supported me in any way? Start an ask by recognizing the difficulty restaurants have been through and saying, 'Hey I've been in recently…'"

Think of the maturity of the restaurant you're approaching. Be especially kind to new, small businesses. 

New businesses are trying to figure everything out: their budgets, labor costs, and now, ever-increasing labor shortages. Nicole Suanlarm, also an owner of Musi, notes that when their restaurant opened in 2019, Miller was named by Philadelphia Magazine as our city's best chef, Musi was named one of Eater National's best new restaurants and with the accolades came a great number of nonprofits looking to have them serve food for free at their events. The offers were presented as privileges but as Suanlarm says, "It's draining on a new business because you're struggling to figure out labor and food cost. Events throw that figuring off its axis. We're scrambling to find helpers and then we must pay that person, but we're not even being paid for that event. We're giving away product and we're messing with our own finances by doing something out of the ordinary,"

Suanlarm continued, "Ari wanted to do every event, say yes to everything. The pressure to get your name out there is huge. You don't want to mess up and you want to do everything you can to promote your business."

Be aware of what you're asking.

Chef Melissa Fernando runs the pop-up eatery Sri's Company. "I think in general, there is a huge disconnect between the organizers at these types of events and the food vendors. I don't think they fully understand what they are asking us to 'donate' to an event," she says. "I do not have a regular kitchen space. I bounce around trying to find a friend whose commissary or restaurant kitchen I can cook out of. It would be useful for organizers to be aware of what really goes into asking a vendor to merely donate their ingredients to an event."

Provide support and clear communication.

Support can come in many forms: stipends to cover food costs, hands to help serve the food at the event, and reaching out to corporate sponsors for product to be turned into dishes. As Einhorn explains with sponsors, "The onus of finding sponsored ingredients shouldn't be on the chef."  

She emphasizes, "You can have a successful event that isn't at the expense of the vendors you rely on. Have the right processes and protocols in place." 

These protocols include clear communication about the number of attendees, the type of labor and assistance provided at the event. "A volunteer with no culinary experience? A sous chef? Be specific," Einhorn advises. "Did you ask for 100 portions and find that you sold more tickets to your event and need 150 two days prior? No. There needs to be a mutual understanding of deliverables [to prevent disasters]." 

Be mindful of the chef's time. 

Einhorn notes, "I think we forget that time is its own valuable resource. Chefs need time to conceptualize and prepare a dish. Events take time away from business, friends, family, and life." 

Widjojo concurs, "Running a restaurant, we don't get that much time off and our hours are painstakingly long, especially as owner-operators. From my standpoint, a lot of these events charge their guests anywhere from $200-400 per person and I feel that the restaurants that do come and participate in those events deserve some type of compensation for their time."

Einhorn lends her viewpoint from the event organizer's side. "As someone who has worn all the hats, nonprofits need all the help. No one is out to get the chef. These asks aren't malicious, there's just a lack of perspective. Organizers are just trying to help whatever their mission is. But they can't just live in that lane and chefs can't just live in theirs."

Donation fatigue is real. Be prepared to explain yourself.

So let's start with clear communication. I fell into a whispered discussion with a group of chefs, including Jennifer Carroll and Kerri Sitrin, who made the leap from restaurants to starting her own consulting and marketing company during the pandemic. Everyone expressed donation fatigue. This letter sprung from our collective mindset. If you're a chef searching for a response to all the asks, this is yours to copy and paste.

Dear event organizer,

Yours sounds like a truly worthy cause and one that I would gladly support with the following stipulations. If you would like me to cook at your event, I will require the following. 

  1. Ample time to prepare and consider this request.
  2. A stipend that covers food, prep labor, and time away from my own business.
  3. Necessary equipment and power to execute my dish.
  4. Dinnerware to serve my dish.
  5. Signage that explains my dish, who I am, and the business I represent, as well as promotion on your marketing and social media channels (and approval from me that the messaging is correct).
  6. Extra hands to help execute and serve my dish if you anticipate over X amount of guests
  7. If your event requires travel, fees incurred are covered (parking, accommodations, etc.).
  8. Transparency on how funds raised from the event are distributed.

If you would like me to donate food, please bear in mind that I can only do so in a way that ensures my small business remains viable. 

Best,

Chef ____

Einhorn encourages more opportunities for conversations on both sides. "Not every situation is going to be exactly the same. Event organizers should approach with 'we want to work with you, what are the best ways to work with you?" She adds, "Chefs, these organizers may just not know any better." 

Prior to the pandemic, I've refused stipends from certain non-profits whose mission and beliefs align with my own. I want to help victims of violence, sufferers of certain diseases that have occurred in my own family, and underserved immigrants. I stand behind these groups and causes and give what I can. But to do so is my own, personal decision and not indicative of what all chefs are capable and in the position of doing.

I know very few chefs who are currently in the position to donate hundreds of portions of food. In 2022, I know more displaced chefs who have closed their restaurants than ever. Donating food is less and less feasible due to shortages, inflation, and supply chain issues. But we are all still being approached. It can feel terrible to say no. It's not that we don't support your mission, but it does feel like we're being asked to support every mission. So please, talk us through your mission, work with us, and may there be mutual support.