A nationwide fundraiser that connects diners with their favorite chefs has come to Houston. Started in New York by food industry veterans Gaeleen Quinn and Anna Polonsky, #AskChefsAnything gives people the opportunity to bid on 30-minute Zoom calls with a mix of local and national culinary personalities, including chefs and media members.
The auctions run July 23 - 26. Proceeds will benefit a special fund of the Southern Smoke Foundation that’s designated for immigrant hospitality workers in Houston. Bidding starts at $100 per person.
Participating chefs include three of Houston’s James Beard Award winners — Shepherd, Justin Yu, and Hugo Ortega — as well as Beard nominees like Kaiser Lashkari (Himalaya), Anita Jaisinghani (Pondicheri), Jonny Rhodes (Indigo), Dawn Burrell (Kulture), and Christine Ha (The Blind Goat). Other familiar names include Ryan Lachaine (Riel), Kevin Naderi (Roost), and Kiran Verma (Kiran’s), plus the chefs behind two of this year’s most eagerly anticipated new restaurants: Aaron Bludorn (Bludorn) and Travis McShane (Ostia).
Celebrities start with Houston hip hop legend Bun B, chef and TV personality Andrew Zimmern, and Top Chef Masters winner Chris Cosentino (the chef-owner of downtown’s Rosalie Italian Soul). Local media personalities include ABC13’s Katherine Whaley, Houston Chronicle food editor Greg Morago, and CultureMap food editor Eric Sandler (aka, me).
“I think it’s just a cool opportunity for people to get engaged and have a conversation with folks they wouldn’t have the opportunity to or don’t have the opportunity to,” Southern Smoke founder and event participant Chris Shepherd tells CultureMap.
A person might want to ask Rebecca Masson for the secrets of baking cookies, or a group of aspiring musicians might want Bun B to hear their demo. Ask Whaley about her favorite traffic shortcuts or Tyson Cole when the Houston branch of Uchiko is likely to open.
Shepherd says he regularly encounters people who want to pick his brain on a variety of topics ranging from cooking techniques to his favorite restaurants. Asked who he thinks might bid on the opportunity to have a 30-minute conversation with him, the chef doesn’t hesitate.
“If my mom finds out, watch out, she says I don’t call enough,” the chef says with a laugh. “My dad might pay that, ‘just talk to your mom, please.’”
The event aims to raise at least $7,000 — by comparison, Dallas raised just under $8,700 — and Shepherd says Southern Smoke will certainly utilize every dollar it receives. Even though restaurants across the country have started to reopen, hospitality workers still need emergency assistance with expenses such as housing and medications.
“Anytime we can put money into it, we’re going to do it,” he says. “We started looking at things, $47 million is what we would need to fund all the people that need it.”