Massimo Bottura, Nina Compton, Michael Solomonov, Enrique Olvera, and more are all signed up for the #AskChefsAnything Beirut campaign.

By Bridget Hallinan
September 10, 2020
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If you’ve ever wanted to have a one-on-one conversation with your favorite chef, head over to #AskChefsAnything’s website. Today, the campaign launched its first international auction, offering up 30-minute chats with Massimo Bottura, Nina Compton, Gail Simmons, and more to benefit an important cause: helping those impacted by the devastating August 4 explosion in Beirut, Lebanon.

#AskChefsAnything was first launched in April 2020 by Gaeleen Quinn and Anna Polonsky to help immigrant food-industry workers affected by the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. “As weeks passed after the crisis started we realized that the government was not going to support those people,” Polonsky told Food & Wine. “They weren’t part of the relief package.”

The women, who both work in hospitality, decided to set up an auction where fans could bid on conversations with chefs to raise money. The first one in New York City yielded $32,000, far exceeding the $10,000 goal. The campaign has since spread to other cities, including Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, Dallas, Philadelphia, and Chicago (which our very own assistant editor Nina Friend participated in!). The team had been planning on taking the campaign international, but wasn’t sure when or how, Polonsky says. Once they heard about the explosion in Beirut, they knew they wanted to help. Kimmy Zouki, director of brand and culture at the Lebanese restaurant Ilili in New York City, and writer and hospitality consultant Tarajia Morrell are also helping with the campaign.

The auction officially went live at 8 a.m. this morning, and yesterday afternoon Polonsky told Food & Wine via e-mail that the campaign had 92 chefs and personalities confirmed. The list includes the aforementioned names, as well as Anissa Helou, Dominique Crenn, Enrique Olvera, Eyal Shani, Josh Russ Tupper, Michael Mina, Michael Solomonov, Ori Menashe, Rene Redzepi and Tarek Alamedine, Riad Nasr, Tom Colicchio, Wylie Dufresne, and many, many more.

As for how the auction works? It’s pretty simple: You head to the site, find someone you’d love to talk to, and start bidding. Historically, Polonsky says the minimum bid has been $100, but for this campaign the team decided to lower it to $60 so it would be “more approachable on an international scale.” In the past, she notes that some people have won for $100, while others have gone up to $4,000. (Bottura currently has the highest bid at $800.)

Winners will be contacted via email once the auction closes to schedule a 30-minute Zoom call. What your conversation is about, as the name #AskChefsAnything suggests, is up to you. Cooking tips, suggestions for how to use up pantry ingredients—Polonsky says some previous winners have requested recipe demos and even career advice. The team will also coordinate with the chef beforehand so they’re prepared.

In the U.S., #AskChefsAnything used the funds from the auctions to buy food through Chefs’ Warehouse, a national restaurant wholesaler, at a “really good deal” and distribute it to local community centers that work with immigrants.  Between the 10 cities that have had auctions so far, #AskChefsAnything raised over $180,000 and was able to deliver 165,000 meals.

All of the Beirut auction funds will benefit Beit el Baraka, a Beirut-based charitable organization whose mission, according to its website, is “to ensure a sense of dignity to hard-working citizens once they retire, by assisting them in their struggle with the increasing cost of living.” Polonsky says that the organization, founded by Maya Chams Ibrahimchah, was initially geared toward helping older Beirut citizens in need. However, after the explosion, Ibrahimchah decided to expand that mission. #AskChefsAnything picked Beit el Baraka, Polonsky explains, because “we liked the breadth of her [Ibrahimchah’s] action. It’s not just food, it’s not just rebuilding. She’s really trying to help on different levels.” The team also didn’t want to choose an organization that was strongly political or religious, and wanted “something that was just about the people in general.” Beit el Baraka is “repairing thousands of homes, rehabilitating essential shops and offering medical and psychological support,” per the auction page, and Ibrahimchah will also be buying meals from chef and humanitarian Kamal Mouzawak’s soon-to-launch community kitchen.

At the time of this writing, the auction has raised just over $7,000 so far toward its goal of $30,000. Bidding will close at 6 p.m. EST on Sunday, September 13, and the link to the auction page can be found here, as well as on the #AskChefsAnything homepage.