Being part of the Covenant House Chef’s Challenge 2020 is a big deal for Dennis Harris.
“My friend and mentor, Chef Jeremy Still, helped start the original part of the chef’s challenge, so it’s important to me,” said Harris, the executive chef at Edgewood Country Club.
He paused for a moment and said, “Actually, two friends and mentors. Bill Sohovich was very involved, too.”
The annual dinner, designed as a tapas-style dine-around, helps raise funds that are used to prevent homelessness and provide food, laundry facilities, health care and other vital services for about 11,000 area families every year, said Ellen Allen, the executive director of Covenant House.
Harris trained under Still and Sohovich, two popular and charismatic local chefs who died within a few years of each other. Both believed feeding the needy was part of their mission. In addition to scores of culinary tips and advice, they passed that vision on to Harris.
“It’s important for me to continue to make sure that this benefits the community, and gives people a reason to continue to come,” said Harris.
Not only has the annual Chef’s Challenge fundraiser continued — this is the 10th year — but it’s grown. So much so that these days, Harris has more company at the annual event than his predecessors ever imagined.
“We have 21 chefs this year,” said Allen, pointing to a list of some of the most prominent chefs around. “We have chefs, bakers, even a barista. They prepare at least 175 small dishes per chef.”
“The impact this event has on what services Covenant House is able to provide is amazing,” said MK O’Haver, a personal baker.
The “challenging” part of the fundraiser is that chefs are charged with creating dishes primarily using ingredients typically found in a food pantry, like the one Covenant House operates weekdays at First Presbyterian Church.
The trick, said several chefs, is to use the right seasonings.
“There’s curry, Thai chili, there’s Teriyaki, soy, things that’ll change the complexion of just regular canned green beans,” said Harris.
The food pantry’s shelves are stocked with many of the same items available in a typical grocery store.
“Actually it’s very easy” to create something with food pantry produce, said Oscar Aguilar from Cafe Cimino. Looking around the full shelves, he added, “I’d be able to make a lot of stuff with this.”
“You can still cook a tasty meal, especially because people in Charleston are very generous,” said John Wright with Bridge Road Bistro.
“At any given day, in our food pantry, you could have caviar, you can have shrimp, you could have any delicacy, and really, you can make an incredible meal from anything that you can find in our food pantry,” said Allen.
The idea, she said, is for families in need to be able to come in and “shop with dignity.”
“We don’t just hand them a box of green beans, your Kraft macaroni and cheese and suggest they be happy,” she said, but instead provide food from all the food groups so people can take what they need twice a month.
“We never intend to be their sole source of food. But it’s intended to fill the gaps,” she added.
Most of the clients Covenant House serves, said Allen, are “working families who are on minimum wage and they’re struggling to pay their rent and utilities, which is every year getting more difficult because rents are going up, costs of everything’s going up, and they’re trying to cobble together two or three of these jobs while caring for their families.”
Allen said Covenant House uses its fund primarily in two ways: First, to help prevent homelessness for those on the cusp; and then to end chronic homelessness for those who’ve been on the streets for an extended time.
“An eviction or water or utilities turn-off just spirals people down quickly. They can’t recover from that,” she said. “So that’s a primary goal, and then getting somebody off the street and into long-term housing, that’s the real cornerstone.”
Allen said 84 percent of the funds raised through the Chef’s Challenge and other Covenant House efforts goes back into the community to help with those two goals.
The Chef’s Challenge, she said, has become a core fundraiser, attracting more female chefs and a younger demographic in recent years.
“It was not difficult at all to get the buy-in of some of the best chefs, certainly in our area,” she said.
“It’s just really heartwarming to think all these people come out for us.”