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Philanthropy Is Good

The Emeril Lagasse Foundation Gives Back

By Tori Phelps

The Tenth Annual Throwdown Benefit Auction and Barbecue and its partnering events tapped the power of meat, wine, and Emeril Lagasse to raise nearly a million dollars for local Northwest Florida charities in a single weekend.

Lagasse was one of the first celebrity chefs of the modern era, luring millions of people back into the kitchen with approachable cookbooks and TV shows that became cultural touchstones. However, much of Emeril Lagasse’s focus today is on his charitable foundation, which has quietly impacted the lives of thousands of the South’s most vulnerable children.

Famously (and genuinely) humble, Lagasse would much rather put the spotlight on friends of the foundation, like Mike “Chi Chi Miguel” and Valerie Thompson of Thompson 31Fifty Wines, who were the driving forces behind last April’s Throwdown Benefit Auction and Barbecue. (In fact, the Thompsons founded the event a decade ago.) Presented by the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, it raised over $700,000 for Gulf Coast charities. When you add in the weekend’s partner events—a Sip N’ Shop at Bijoux restaurant and the Chi Chi Miguel Golf Tournament at Burnt Pine Golf Club—the jaw-dropping total reaches nearly $900,000.

Steve and Lynn Dugas with Valerie and Mike “Chi Chi Miguel” Thompson at the 2016 Throwdown Benefit Auction and Barbecue. Photo by Steven Freeman.
Steve and Lynn Dugas with Valerie and Mike “Chi Chi Miguel” Thompson at the 2016 Throwdown Benefit Auction and Barbecue. Photo by Steven Freeman.

The Throwdown started as a small backyard get-together, organized to answer the question “Can winemakers cook?” In the ensuing decade, the cooking question has (deliciously) been put to rest as the Throwdown has evolved into a high-profile experience that attracts attendees from across the country. “Valerie took a great party and grew it into a major weekend event,” Mike says of his wife.

While the Thompsons are stunned that it’s become a fund-raising phenomenon, the Throwdown is an easy-to-love blend of fun barbecue cook-off, great wines from renowned vintners, and foodies who prefer their parties with a side of philanthropy.

Set against the beauty of Santa Rosa Beach, the weekend kicked off with the “great wines” element, showcasing pours by winemakers Julianna Martinelli of Martinelli Winery, Adam Craun of Memento Mori, and Mark Heitz of Dakota Shy. Next up were silent and live auctions that tempted guests with private wine estate experiences, collectible wines, luxury travel expeditions, and fine art.

The main event—the Throwdown itself—featured five teams with notables like Dan Kosta of Kosta Browne Winery, David Long of David Arthur Vineyards, and Emeril Lagasse himself. While chasing the coveted Perpetually Porkified trophy, presented after a blind tasting by celebrity judges Beau McMillan, Dustin Valette, Tim Creehan, Chan Cox, and Jim Richard, contestants exercise their creativity not only through their ribs and side dishes but through costumes and props as well.

Whether it’s educating them about where food comes from or teaching invaluable life skills that help them create their own futures, the Foundation has been life-changing for so many children.

Volunteers stock the pantry for Food for Thought Outreach, Inc. near Destin, Florida.
Volunteers stock the pantry for Food for Thought Outreach, Inc. near Destin, Florida.

These fierce competitors bring their A games to the table (pun intended) in pursuit of the trophy and bragging rights, but the real Throwdown winners are local charities. Through grants, the Emeril Lagasse Foundation distributed the weekend’s proceeds to Emerald Coast Children’s Advocacy Center, Camille’s Art for Autism, Sinfonia Gulf Coast, Alaqua Animal Refuge, Food for Thought Outreach, the Ingram Lee Foundation, and Children’s Volunteer Health Network.

Lagasse is more than a name and a face at the Throwdown; he puts in the behind-the-scenes work as well. Beside him in that effort is Lagasse’s wife, Alden, cofounder of the Emeril Lagasse Foundation and a passionate philanthropist, who devotes much of her time to the foundation and its activities. She’s happy to do so, especially when an event benefits so many charities in and around the family’s adopted home—and when good friends are involved.

Alden and her husband met the Thompsons several years ago, not long after the Lagasses bought a home in South Walton. Their friendship, forged through a common love of food and wine (“What better neighbors to have, right?” Alden asks), has become a charitable powerhouse. A seasoned philanthropist himself, Mike has even joined the Emeril Lagasse Foundation’s board of directors. “We believe strongly in the charities we support, and that motivates us,” he says.

It’s not hard to be motivated by the Emeril Lagasse Foundation and its kid-centered mission. The organization funds projects that encourage and support the youth through culinary, nutrition, and arts education. Alleviating hunger and helping kids find their way in the world is all in a day’s work for the Foundation, which was launched in 2002. While it’s headquartered in New Orleans, the Foundation’s reach extends throughout the Gulf Coast.

Some of its primary projects include an outdoor classroom, gardens, a fresh food cafeteria and teaching kitchen at the Edible Schoolyard New Orleans, an accessible learning kitchen for special needs students at Saint Michael Special School, a four-year culinary arts program for high school students at New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, and hospitality training for at-risk kids through the Emeril Lagasse Foundation Hospitality Center at Café Reconcile and Liberty’s Kitchen.

According to Emeril, it’s not an option for his family to sit on the sidelines when so many children are in need. “We hope to provide inspiration, opportunity, and the tools they need to reach their fullest potential,” he says. “Whether it’s educating them about where food comes from or teaching invaluable life skills that help them create their own futures, the Foundation has been life-changing for so many children.”

The Foundation’s numbers attest to the good it does—like the nearly 900,000 Second Harvest meals served to hungry kids since 2010 and the 33,500-plus meals provided by Liberty’s Kitchen to low-income school children last year alone, thus allowing those kids to participate in enrichment activities. Thousands of additional youth have been empowered and equipped for a brighter future through culinary training.

One of the things I find most rewarding is to learn about students that graduate from one school or a program we support, and then continue on to another.

As parents, Alden and Emeril are naturally drawn to the plight of children in need. It turns out that food—another thing they’re drawn to—solves a host of issues, from hunger to lack of career opportunities to intergenerational cycles of unhealthy eating habits. “There is so much need to reach kids outside of the traditional classroom,” Alden says. “Preparing a meal, understanding where it comes from, and sharing it with others add up to an experience that grounds and connects everyone. It’s an important part of creating a foundation for success.”

Childhood hunger, of course, is a real and immediate problem in this country. That’s why Alden is especially proud of the Foundation’s involvement with Second Harvest, a critical program that feeds kids all over southeastern Louisiana. These are kids who have little to no food available at home, she says, so it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the healthy breakfasts, lunches, and snacks the organization provides for 4,500 kids each day.

Chef Emeril and students participate in a kitchen training program supported by the Emeril Lagasse Foundation.
Chef Emeril and students participate in a kitchen training program supported by the Emeril Lagasse Foundation.

It would be easy to become paralyzed by the overwhelming need the foundation is trying to address, but the little victories encourage them to keep pushing forward. “I love hearing the stories of kids whose lives have been touched by the Foundation,” Alden shares. “One of the things I find most rewarding is to learn about students that graduate from one school or a program we support, and then continue on to another. For example, one of Saint Michael’s graduates enrolled in Café Reconcile’s hospitality training program. The student learned the ropes of the restaurant business and is now employed at a café in New Orleans.”

Next up, the Emeril Lagasse Foundation is developing a signature culinary garden and teaching kitchen program, which will be integrated into a series of elementary schools nationwide.

There’s always more to do, which is why fund-raisers like the Throwdown are so crucial. Calling the generosity of guests at this year’s event “unparalleled,” Alden points out that many of the benefiting programs have grown as the Throwdown (and its donations) has grown. That’s a powerful reason to keep going—and a testament to the big-hearted nature of people on the Gulf Coast. The Lagasses are full-time residents now, in part because of what they’ve witnessed. “We’ve made many friends in this community through the Throwdown,” Alden says. “Everyone is focused on helping others, and their generosity truly shines through.”

— V —

To learn more about the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, visit www.Emeril.org.

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