Northland chefs cook up a feast to feed the hungryChefs of the past, present and future joined forces to prepare a brunch tour de force meant to not only satisfy the 439 hungry guests who descended on the DECC’s Lake Superior Ballroom on Sunday, but also to feed hundreds more in the Northland.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
Chef Paul Madsen may have retired from his old job heading food preparation at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, but you wouldn’t have known it to see him scurrying around the kitchen Sunday morning.
Chefs of the past, present and future joined forces to prepare a brunch tour de force meant to not only satisfy the 439 hungry guests who descended on the DECC’s Lake Superior Ballroom on Sunday, but also to feed hundreds more in the Northland. All proceeds from the event will go to support the Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank, as well as a culinary arts scholarship fund established by the Arrowhead Professional Chefs Association.
The association has named its annual fundraiser in honor of one of its original members, the late Al Dumancas, former chef for the Kitchi Gammi Club.
“One of the things Al believed in strongly was that our industry always should give back to the community that supports us. He instilled that ideal in a lot of us,” Madsen said.
Matthew F. Johnson, a Duluth Denfeld High School senior, was among half a dozen high school culinary students helping out at the event, first with prep work in the kitchen and then at a popular omelet station once guests began to arrive in the ballroom.
“It’s great to be able to learn from all these chefs and to see them in action,” he said.
Johnson has been accepted for enrollment at the Culinary Institute of America in New York City next year. Having the opportunity to work with established local chefs Sunday seemed only to cement his interest in the field.
“It’s exciting and exhilarating to be here. It inspires me and solidifies my determination to become a chef myself one day,” said Johnson, who has dreamt of a culinary career since the age of 9.
Glenn D’Amour, a culinary instructor at Duluth East High School, said the benefits of having students involved at the brunch are two-fold: “This is an opportunity for students to learn by doing, and it also gives them a chance to network. Once chefs see what these kids can do, they’ll want to put some of them to work.”
Kevin Ilenda, a chef at the Sheraton’s Restaurant 301, said the event draws together the talents of three generations, including young, aspiring chefs like Johnson; active executive chefs, such as himself; and semi-retired chefs, such as Madsen.
“We all have things we can learn from one another,” he said, describing the collegial atmosphere of the event.
“We chefs have a good camaraderie here in Duluth, because this is a small market and we all need to work together. Everyone’s willing to help one another,” said Chef Arlene Coco Buscombe.
That was one of the hallmarks of Dumancas.
“Al was a mentor for many of the young chefs who came to town back in his day. If anyone needed help or information about something, he always stepped up,” Madsen recalled.
“Many of us who spent time with him learned a lot from him,” Madsen said. In fact, Dumancas provided Madsen with his introduction to ice carving, now one of his specialties. Madsen’s frozen handiwork was on display Sunday in a shrimp cocktail server display and as intricate buffet table centerpieces.
Local chefs donate their time to the event, but Madsen said it wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of all the vendors and suppliers who also step up and contribute the ingredients for the brunch for free or at a deep discount.
For 35 years now, the local chefs association has been hosting an annual community fundraiser. For the past dozen years, the meal has been in the form of a brunch, and the event has been growing slowly but steadily.
Madsen said most of that growth has been from positive word-of-mouth, noting that promotion hasn’t been the organization’s strong suit, and probably 70 percent of business comes from return guests.
“We do a great job with the food, but not as good a job selling tickets,” he said. “I sometimes think we’re the best-kept secret in town.”
Ginger Byrd of Duluth attended the $25-per-plate brunch for the first time this year after hearing about it from a friend. When asked for her impressions, she said: “Wow. I was expecting something a little more modest than this.”
Her friend, Leila Bouchard of South Range, was a return guest.
“Every year I wonder how they can top the last meal,” she said, “but they seem to always come up with something new and even better.”