John Woods believes this year’s Taste of the Nation dinner will be the best ever.
Of course, as the state chair of the event, he says that every year. But it’s for good reason, and it’s usually true.
“We have to be better every year because this issue is not going away,” Woods said.
The issue is childhood hunger. Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation dinners, held in nearly 40 locations across the country, bring chefs, restaurants, sponsors and the public together at over-the-top culinary benefits to raise money and awareness for local groups that make sure no kid has to go to bed hungry.
Maine’s dinner, run entirely by volunteers, has quickly become one of the more successful ones in New England, outperforming even Boston.
Just four years ago, Maine’s Taste of the Nation raised $40,000, but it cost $20,000 to put on the event, leaving just $15,000 for grants to local charities. Last year, the sold-out event raised $143,000 but only spent $8,000 on the dinner.
Add in revenues from other dinners and bake sales held throughout the year, and Maine’s chapter of Share Our Strength was able to donate $175,000 to four beneficiaries who are told the funding must go specifically to helping hungry children: The Good Shepherd Food Bank and its Cooking Matters program, which teaches low-income families how to cook inexpensive, nutritious meals; the Preble Street Teen Center; Cultivating Community; and the Opportunity Alliance/East End Kids Catering.
“Our funding helped (East End Kids Catering) to serve a thousand meals a day to children in Portland last summer,” Woods said. Nationally, one in five children lives with food insecurity, not knowing where they will get their next meal. In Maine, the number is one in four. Maine is the “hungriest state in all of New England,” Woods said.
“As a percentage, we have more children who live in food-insecure homes than in any other state in New En-gland,” he said.
Woods’ goal for this year’s dinner is to raise $175,000 to $200,000.
The dinner will feature food and specialty drinks from more than two dozen restaurants. That represents 28 chefs, the largest number that have ever attended, and Woods is also expecting more guests than ever since he is raising the number of available tickets from 350 to 400 or 425.
Guests will be able to meet and chat with longtime supporters of the dinner, such as Sam Hayward of Fore Street, Jeff Landry of The Farmer’s Table and Larry Matthews of Back Bay Grill. New this year are Jonathan Cartwright from The White Barn Inn in Kennebunk and chefs from Black Birch in Kittery, Spread in Portland, Five-O in Ogunquit, Walter’s in Portland, and the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport.
For a complete list of participating restaurants, go to ce.strength.org/portlandme .
CVC Catering Group is handling the VIP reception this year. Owner Nancy Cerny says the historic barn at Wolfe’s Neck Farm is being transformed for the event. The barn will be decorated with an antique truck filled with hay, 6-foot-tall distressed fork, knife and spoon, and three crystal chandeliers.
VIP guests will be served four passed appetizers, and there will be two appetizer stations and one chef ’s station. Passed apps will include Seared Duck Breast with Fresh Cherry BBQ and Paniola-Style Lamb Lollipops. At the chef ’s station there will be Seared Local Scallops with Bacon Brittle.
Executive chef Katie Pierce worked with sommelier Amy Propheter to pair each “course” with specialty cocktails. The scallops, for example, will be served with a cocktail of apple puree and bourbon.
When it’s time for the main event, VIP guests will be transported a mile and a half via custom coach.
The main dinner will be held on the farm’s wedding field. Guests will be greeted upon arrival by a representative of Bill Dodge. A couple of years ago, the auto dealer donated a BMW for the auction that follows the dinner. This year, it is offering valet service for every guest and all of the chefs.
The silent and live auctions typically include culinary-related items, and this year several Portland restaurants are participating.
David’s is donating a nine-course tasting menu with wine pairings for 10 people at its Monument Square location. The Salt Exchange is donating a five-course dinner for up to eight people prepared by the chef at the guest’s home. Zapoteca is donating a four-course dinner for 10 people in the winning guest’s home.
Woods has also asked local furniture makers to fill cabanas with examples of their work. The cabanas will be used as private seating, but then all of the furniture will be sold at the auction. Among the furniture makers participating are Thos. Moser and Pierce Furniture.
Woods expects Taste of the Nation to become a $250,000 event in the next few years. Despite its success, he has frustrations, particularly when it comes to bringing more people under the tent.
“I’m not blaming the hospitals, but where’s Mercy and where’s Maine Medical?” Woods said. “They’re not involved in Taste of the Nation, and they should be. This is a health issue. Where are the law firms? We have more lawyers per capita than any city in the country, yet we don’t have a single law firm that is supporting the work that we do.
“Where are the financial institutions? Where’s Wall Street? Why are they not supporting this and bringing their private client groups to events like this?”
Woods takes some of the blame, saying the all-volunteer group needs to get better at reaching out to such institutions and engaging them.
“Our expectation,” he said, “is that this event will continue to grow, along with our other programs, so that we can now fund in a meaningful way programs that will really cut into this issue of child hunger.”