Chefs Evening still fundraising and friend-raising after 25 years
Contact: Christina Chapple
Click on thumbnail for high resolution photo(1) (2) (3)
(1) LOYAL RESTAURANT – Joseph O’Neil, the founder of Southeastern Louisiana University’s Chefs Evening fundraiser, left, poses with Jacmel Inn chef Harry Williamson, center, and then president J. Larry Crain at the first Chefs Evening in 1984.
(2) GETTING READY – Mary Lou Coats, far left, and her crew work on decorations for Chefs Evening 2009. The March 8 event will mark the Southeastern Louisiana University fundraiser’s 25th anniversary. From left, are Coats, Veda Abene, Lisa Patti, Lynn Horgan, Angelique McIntyre, Becky Starkey, and Dawn Dottolo-Starkey.
(3) AT THE FIRST CHEFS EVENING -- Wong brothers Tommy, Joe, and Frank serve their featured dish to Enid Sims Sears at the first Chefs Evening. The Wongs and their restaurants have been participating in Chefs Evening for the past half century.
HAMMOND – The goal of Chefs Evening has always been fundraising and “friend-raising.” A quarter of a century after Southeastern Louisiana University first staged its annual “dinner party for a good cause,” its purpose hasn’t changed.
“I’m glad to see it’s stood the test of time. That makes me feel good,” said Joseph O’Neil, who founded Chefs Evening in 1984.
The silver anniversary edition of Chefs Evening – “Cheers to 25 Years” – is Sunday, March 8, 5:30-7:30 p.m., at a new venue, the Pennington Student Activity Center. Once again, the festive event will offer tempting dishes and drinks from area restaurants, bars, grills, and wholesalers, along with a raffle and silent auction. And, as has been the case from day one, all proceeds benefit Southeastern academic programs.
O’Neil, who is now president of a dental practice consulting firm and a director in the LSU School of Dentistry’s orthodontics department, was a Hammond dentist and chair of the Southeastern Development Foundation Board of Directors when he dreamed up Chefs Evening and put it into motion on Oct. 14, 1984.
An enthusiastic amateur chef who frequently honed his cooking skills at the renowned Lee Barnes Cooking School in New Orleans, O’Neil wanted to create an event that would not only compliment Southeastern’s fundraising efforts, but also bring town and gown together socially.
“We wanted to bring a lot of people onto the campus who might not ordinarily be there,” he said. “One of the hallmarks of southeast Louisiana is its cuisine, so it just made a lot of sense to make food the starring attraction.
“We got an overwhelming response from restaurants,” O’Neil said. “No one turned us down.”
As the organizer for Chefs Evening’s first years, O’Neil “spiced” up the gala, held in the fall until 1995, with culinary guests. Celebrities included the entertaining duo of La Riviera of Metairie’s Goffredo Fraccaro and La Provence of Lacombe’s Constantin Kerageorgiou, famed chef Paul Prudhomme, and June Soniat, co-author of the “La Bouche Creole” cookbooks with her late husband, Times-Picayune food editor and noted chef Leon Soniat Jr., and “one of the finest cooking instructors I ever had,” O’Neil said.
The event’s original name – compliments of history professor Howard Nichols, then also a member of the Development Foundation board – was “Chefs Evening Under the Oaks.” The idea was to stage the event under the light-strung branches of the live oaks in front of Twelve Oaks, Southeastern’s banquet hall.
But late in the afternoon of Oct. 14, “We had a tremendous wind storm and downpour,” O’Neil remembered. “Oh my gosh, we scrambled to get everyone inside just a few minutes before it was scheduled to open. Larry Crain was president and he told me, ‘Partner, I thought we were in for the biggest mess.’” The concept of staging an outdoor event during fall’s always tricky weather was quickly abandoned and the name was appropriately edited.
Paul Murphy’s Jacmel Inn was one of the original restaurants to participate in Chefs Evening, along with Murphy’s Seafood, Trey Yuen (then called China Inn), Mashburn’s, Castaway’s, the Covington Depot, La Provence, the Shadows, Nuvalori’s and La Riviera. He hasn’t missed a Chefs Evening since. His loyalty lies in simple gratitude and appreciation, he said.
“They don’t even have to ask me,” he said. “Southeastern is part of the fabric of our community. Without it, Hammond might be a very nice truck stop.”
Because of the university, Murphy said, “We have an educated workforce, students who become great personnel for our business.” Southeastern employees are also loyal clients, while, “At graduation twice a year, our restaurant is full on a Saturday. We’re thankful for all that,” he said.
Murphy doesn’t remember what Jacmel offered at the first Chefs Evening, but he does recall that then chef Harry Williamson was “famous for quail and had a dish called ‘Redfish Harry,’ so we might have done that.”
Over the years, “I do remember doing roast leg of lamb, crab cakes, grilled bacon wrapped and crab meat stuffed shrimp, and crawfish fettucini,” he said.
While Murphy remembers the food, Mary Lou Coats remembers the decorations. The Development Foundation’s accounting coordinator, Coats took over O’Neil’s Chefs Evening duties in 1986: from rounding up chefs and selling tickets to coordinating publicity and devising elaborate crowd-pleasing decorating schemes.
“They asked me to take it on ‘temporarily’ – 23 years ago,” Coats said, laughing. While other Chefs Evening coordinators have included Development Foundation staffers Sarah Schillage and Lynn Horgan, who has run the show for the past two years, the decorations are still Coats’ job.
She handles the task, she said, with a lot of help from a dedicated team of friends and colleagues, including Veda Abene, Angelique McIntyre, Jackie Dale Thomas, Jason Leader, Lisa Patti, Dawn Dottolo-Starkey, Becky Starkey, Tammy and Debbie Davis and Laurie Scalise. She also gets valuable labor from student organizations, and help with any decorating-related construction needs from Southeastern Physical Plant staffers. And she doesn’t hesitate to call on her “secret weapon” – her parents George and Marcia Coats and aunt Theresa Coats.
“I remember my parents sitting around their table one year assembling silver hats,” she said, laughing. “I couldn’t do it without them.”
In honor of the 25th anniversary, past decorating themes are being revisited -- “Oriental,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Safari,” and “Tropical” and one of Coats’ favorites, “Phantom of the Opera” from 2006.
“The decorations really came together that year,” Coats said. She said patrons were also enthusiastic about the entertainment, provided by Blair Abene (the current Miss Louisiana, who was then Miss Southeastern), who teamed-up with a fellow Southeastern music major to sing songs from the popular musical.
This year’s move to the Pennington Center will provide a new challenge for Coats and her decorating gurus. “The University Center arena is one basketball court – this will be the equivalent of four courts,” she pointed out.
Chefs Evening “was a lot of work coming out of the ground,” O’Neil said. “I really feel good that it is going onto 25 years now. Personally, it’s just something I look forward to every year, an upbeat occasion that is still very affordable and a delight to see people I’ve known for decades.”
“Southeastern has done a fabulous job in carrying the torch. It really tickles me,” he said.
Chefs Evening tickets are $50 each or $425 for a reserved table for eight. For those who also wish to attend the pre-event Champagne Toast party, scheduled for the university President’s Residence from 4-5 p.m. immediately preceding Chefs Evening, tickets are $75 or $575 for a party of eight.
Tickets are available from Southeastern Development Foundation, (985) 549-2239, and online at www.selu.edu/chefsevening.