The University of Houston hosted one of the Super Bowl’s most lavish parties Saturday. Now in its 26th year, Taste of the NFL’s Party with a Purpose brings together celebrities, chefs, and athletes to raise money for food banks in each of the 32 NFL cities.
Chef and television host Andrew Zimmern serves as one of the event’s hosts, along with Chopped judge Alex Guarnaschelli and Top Chef winner Richard Blais. During an interview on the red carpet, Zimmern explained why he’s been involved with this event for six years.
“I said yes, because it’s hunger relief, it’s Minnesota-based, it’s an issue I’ve been working on for a long time,” Zimmern said. “I think if you’ve been graced with a big platform like I have and you’re not using it to make the world a better place something’s wrong.”
Guarnaschelli has only been involved with the event for two years, but the Iron Chef explained that she prefers to invest her time in only two or three causes where she thinks can make a difference.
“I certainly think the connection between something as athletic as the NFL and chefs, who are also tremendously athletic, and then it all ties into fighting hunger. That all interests me,” she said.
Other celebrities walking the red carpet included Miss America Savvy Shields, WWE star Danielle Moinet (aka Summer Rae), NFL player James Anderson, Olympic legends Carl Lewis and Simone Biles, ESPN broadcaster and Super Bowl winner Trent Dilfer, and actress Alyssa Milano.
Tasting events can vary widely in quality, but many attendees told CultureMap that Saturday night’s party ranked as one of the best. In addition to the overall high quality of the food, each chef gets paired with a NFL alum who’s available to sign autographs and pose for pictures. Short lines (rare at an event that attracted almost 3,000 people) and elegant decor also combined to make the experience one that people won’t soon forget.
“The guys in that room, the ladies in that room who are making food are some of my best friends and new friends,” Zimmern said. “They’re leaving their restaurants for almost a week to come down here and help us do this. This is a massive event, and I’m just so grateful that I get to call these people colleagues.”
Standout dishes included meatballs from Tribeca Grill in New York, crab cakes in corn chowder prepared by chef Nancy Longo of Pierpoint Restaurant in Baltimore, and fried dumplings from Seabar in Buffalo. Attendees even got a sneak peek at a couple of restaurants that are coming to the Houston-area in the form of cannoli from Carlo’s bakery (of Cake Boss fame), which is coming to the The Woodlands Mall later this month, and salmon sashimi from Nobu, which is expected to open in The Galleria towards the end of this year.
Although a number of Houston restaurants served at the event, including Third Coast, Peli Peli, Hungry’s, Pink’s Pizza, and Frank’s Americana Revival, Cafe Annie chef-owner Robert Del Grande served as the city’s official representative, which seems fitting, since he also represented the city at the first Taste of the NFL 26 years ago. Asked about how this year’s event compares to those he’s attended previously, the James Beard Award winner said the city has represented itself well.
“I think this one rocks,” Del Grande said. “This one I think is one of the best. All of the chefs have done it numerous times, but it puts a lot of pressure going back to Minneapolis next year where it started. Always good to say, ‘Wow, last year. That was killer.’ Everyone all across the country going, ‘wow, what a joint you guys got.’”
Both Blais and Guarnaschelli said they didn’t have time to try many local restaurants, although Blais mentioned a good visit to the Fat Bao location near the UH campus. Even Zimmern, who has long been a fan of Houston’s restaurant scene, said he’s been staying away from the big name places this week in favor of eating Viet-Cajun crawfish on Bellaire.
“I have a lot of friends that have some fancy restaurants in town, and there was buy-outs, and it’s a mob scene. I told them I’m not bothering you this week. They’re, like, thank you very much,” he said. Later, he added, “Ryan Lachaine (Riel Restaurant) is amazing. Chris Shepherd, Bryan Caswell, the folks at Oxheart, a lot of my buddies are here. Sadly, I’ve been here four days and haven’t been able to darken any of their doors. Maybe tomorrow night after the game.”
After all the tastings, The Band Perry closed out the evening with an extended concert.