This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Three very closely related events have just taken, or are currently taking, place in the restaurant and wine worlds that reveal an aspect of both that is unique but rarely discussed.
The first event was the 151st Hospices de Beaune wine auction organised in Burgundy in late November by Anthony Hanson MW of Christie's. This raised over €5 million ($6.7 million) for the Hospices' charitable beneficiaries.
The second is the current iteration across the UK of StreetSmart, created by William Sieghart and Mary-Lou Sturridge in 1998, whereby over 500 restaurateurs are adding one pound to every bill during November and December. StreetSmart has so far raised over £5 million ($7,855,000) for the homeless.
And this is the closing weekend to bid for lunch with a leading FT writer at one of 25 restaurants around the world with all the proceeds going to Sightsavers, this year's FT Christmas charity.
The huge impact good wine and food can have on any fundraising event will not be underappreciated by anyone who has been involved in any such fundraising event.
Wine and food in these instances combine to make an unbeatable combination. And I believe that it is only appropriate, even though this column is principally about food, to give the credit first and foremost to wine, to its ability to persuade people not just to reach for their wallets but also, on so many occasions, to open them far more generously than most guests had originally intended to do when they arrived. Good food and the conversation around the tables often provide the spur to some competitive bidding at the auction stage but it is unquestionably the wine that by this stage of the evening has woven its magic and induced everyone to feel a lot more magnanimous.
And this is principally, of course, thanks to the generosity of the supporting wine merchants, who, like so many generous restaurateurs today, find their heartstrings being continually pulled in so many worthwhile directions.
When I asked Willie Lebus of Bibendum Wine, which supplies many British restaurants, to ask his colleagues how often they were asked to donate wine for a charitable cause, his immediate response was 'almost daily'. A quick check round the office found one colleague who said that he can get up to three requests a day. Over the years, Lebus continued, they have concentrated on specific charities (currently it is the Multiple Sclerosis Society, for which he reckons they have raised over £100,000/$157,100 in three years), adding that he had just been auctioned for £1,600 ($2,500) to conduct a wine tasting for 30 for Hope for Youth. 'The only big change in the past 10 years', he added, 'is that there is no more free champagne to give away. But we still supply a lot of sparkling and still wine at cost.'
A similar approach is taken at their rival Liberty Wines. Its MD, David Gleave, decided at the opening of Fifteen, Jamie Oliver's restaurant, which was then swiftly followed by the creation of the Jamie Oliver Foundation, to lend both enterprises a specific helping hand. 'Every year we take several of the cooks and waiting staff from their restaurants in Cornwall and London to visit our suppliers in Italy. Over the years, I've seen some of these kids go from being previously unemployed with no experience of travel outside the UK to cooking in restaurants in Italy and even in some of London's best kitchens. Such transformations have been amazing to watch', he enthused.
And while it is the genie in the bottle that allows so many wine producers and wine merchants to set these charitable events on the right course, often so ably assisted by a member of the wine-writing fraternity, it is the continuing need for funds that propels so many restaurateurs and hoteliers to respond creatively.
While their counterparts in the more formal restaurants are adding a pound to the bill, those at the Pret a Manger sandwich chain are contributing 25 pence (40 cents) to the homeless for every Christmas sandwich sold (including the vegetarian option) and have so far raised close to £40,000 ($62,840) this year alone.
The restaurateurs I spoke to in London and New York (where SOS, Share Our Strength, has so successfully harnessed American restaurateurs and chefs to raise funds to battle hunger at home and overseas since the 1980s) said that they too receive numerous requests each week. And that it was an exciting challenge to try and offer something on top of just a free meal since so many charity organisers are in search of the auction lot 'that money cannot buy'.
This quest is particularly tough in London ever since Chris Corbin, having overcome leukaemia and gone on to open The Wolseley, created in 1999 what is now the annual 'Who's Cooking Dinner?' event. On a Monday in early March every year 20 top chefs prepare dinner for 20 tables of 10, one table each, after which the chefs are auctioned to cook at the highest bidder's home. So far £3.7 million ($5.8 million) has gone to Leuka. The details of the 2012 event are now available at www.whoscookingdinner.com. (The photo above, by Andy Sewell, shows Marcus Wareing, left, and Richard Corrigan, right, during the 2011 dinner.)
My own fundraising involvement as a restaurateur ranged from putting on a lunch for the Tricycle Theatre after a fire there, to donating dinners, and then, as a critic, cooking for chefs and restaurateurs for Action Against Hunger and also offering dinner for six in our home as an auction prize.
But the greatest excitement has come from being a small part of the wine dinners across the globe that have raised over $15 million (£9.4 million) for Room to Read over the past eight years. That grapes grown in France, Germany, Italy, South Africa and the US can produce a drink so special that it has sent so many young children to schools in 10 countries in Asia and India, where until recently there has been no wine-drinking culture, is an extraordinary fact. This is a great tribute to good wine, to good food and, most significantly, to all that they can collectively achieve for good causes.