“Oh I didn’t smuggle in extra ingredients,” 2009 James Beard Best Southern Chef award winner John Currence admitted in the midst of a Chopped-style cook-off in the FedExFamilyHouse to benefit the Le Bonheur Children's Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. just across the street. “I’m downright cheating. I brought in every ingredient kids love from chocolate and peanut butter to marshmallows. We’re going to win.”
And win Currence and his partner Chris Shepherd, chef of renowned Houston restaurant Underbelly did, with a plate of Elvis-inspired peanut butter pancakes and French toast judged by a group of some nine Le Bonheur patients (kids with ailments ranging from heart and pulmonary issues to neurological and orthopedic ones). But it was cheating for a good cause — a chefs' gathering that was the central component of this year's LeBonAppetit event presented by Le Bonheur Club, a charity event benefiting Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, one of the region's most comprehensive pediatric medical facilities.
Karma’s well, karma. Currence and Shepherd were so focused on their "illegal" ingredients that they didn’t notice the pantry in the middle of the four chef stations the others made use of. It illustrates the point though, that these nationally respected chefs were away from their restaurants with six other colleagues of righteous standing on a Friday morning cooking for six-year-olds because their friend, Memphis star and 2009 Food & Wine Best New Chef Kelly English of Restaurant Iris and The Second Line, asked them to visit Memphis to help out for a cause: supporting the biennial benefit that he and his wife Angela English chair.
LeBonAppetit 2014 is the second iteration of an event that raised $180,000 the first time round, and one that started out of a conversation chef English had with a hospital administrator at Restaurant Iris. "I was telling them that when I was six years old I fell out of my grandmother’s second-story window and I broke basically the left side of my body and I ended up in traction and a body cast for 15 months, and had to learn to walk again — I still can’t turn my wrist," he explained. "Le Bonheur is a place I would have liked to have been able to go to when I was a kid. Because I grew up in New Orleans and Lafayette and, in Lafayette at least, there wasn’t really a children’s hospital. It was a great hospital and they did wonderful things, but LeBonheur is definitely on a different level."
These days, celebrity chefs travel across the country for festivals, many benefitting good causes, but also attracting the buzz of national media as much if not more for the techno-beat studded scenes that accompany them than the causes they benefit. But over the past three years in Memphis, some prominent American chefs have gathered twice behind English to spearhead a benefit for a children’s hospital that treats more than 130,000 children every year."Le Bonheur is a place I would have liked to have been able to go to when I was a kid," explained Chef Kelly English.
"There is a great need in Memphis," said Le Bonheur's public relations director Sara Burnett. "Our problems include poverty, premature birth, and poor access to health care."
Besides Chris Shepherd of Underbelly and John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford, the morning’s event featured Ben Smith (Tsunami, Memphis), Eli Kirshtein (The Luminary, Atlanta), Mike Gulotta (MOPHO, New Orleans), Jayce McConnell (Edmund’s Oast, Charleston), Patrick Reilly (The Majestic Grille, Memphis), and Phillip Lopez (Root, New Orleans) — no lackluster lineup. Smith and Reilly are local Memphis institutions, but farther afield there’s Kirshtein, a fellow culinary school classmate of English’s and a Top Chef contestant, Gulotta who was chef de cuisine at John Besh's August, and Lopez, another Besh-alum who has been making huge waves in New Orleans. And that was just the beginning.
"When coming up with an idea to benefit LeBonheur here in Memphis, I wanted to involve people locally as well," explained English. "So we really wanted to create an event where we could bring some people in that we knew from around the country that do great things and pair them with people in town who also do great things and start to build relationships with our talent through it."
There were some 31 other chefs from 10 other states beyond Tennessee (Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and even Massachusetts) who participated in the 2014 LeBonAppetit, all of them friends of chef English. They drew more than 800 guests for an event that helped raise more than $200,000 after paying for the chefs' travel, lodging, and ingredients — money that is earmarked to the purchase of a specialized trauma ambulance for transporting children.
"What Le Bonheur does is simply amazing," noted chef John Currence. "The thoughtfulness of their philosophy and the care they give to their patients and families is astounding. I defy anyone who claims to have a heart to be involved and not choke up."