Iron Chefs defend MASH in its mission

Chefs David Awad and Jennifer Backman will compete in the sixth annual MASH Iron Chef competition on Friday.
Chefs David Awad and Jennifer Backman will compete in the sixth annual MASH Iron Chef competition on Friday. Photo submitted

MASH (Mystic Area Shelter & Hospitality, Inc.) is more financially challenged than ever to provide emergency shelter and services to families facing homelessness in New London County.

And so, for the sixth year, the nonprofit is challenging two chefs to do battle in its major fundraiser of the year-an Iron Chef-style competition based on the popular food Network culinary game show. The Aug. 17 event at St. Edmund's Retreat at Enders Island includes hors d'ouvres, cocktails, beer tastings and a live auction.

"This is our biggest single fundraising opportunity of the year," says Lisa Bates, MASH executive director.

Only about 10 percent of the organization's funding comes from state and local government, Bates explains. The remainder of its support is derived from individual donors, private institutions and community foundations.

"It's not just a terrible national economy-the Norwich/New London corridor is one of the 10 slowest regions to recover in America," Bates says, noting that family homelessness (versus homeless single adults) is driven by what's happening in the economy, making the situation particularly grim in the local region.

Last year MASH worked with 77 families, representing 255 individual children and parents across its three programs: emergency services, re-housing and homelessness prevention for families at imminent risk.

"That's contrasted with MASH four or five years ago, which was much smaller, a much different economic situation-we sheltered 12 to 15 families in a year," she notes.

ACCOMPLISHED CHEFS AND CELEBRITY JUDGES

Vying for the 2012 Iron Chef title is chef David Awad of the Oyster Club in Mystic and chef Jennifer Backman of the Ocean House in Watch Hill. Each chef will prepare three different dishes for the judges to sample, using the most demanding main ingredient to date: live lobsters plucked right out of Long Island Sound.

Backman is a graduate of Johnson & Wales University in Providence. She was executive sous chef at Castle Hill Inn & Resort in Newport prior to joining the Ocean House in the same position. She was appointed recently as executive chef at Weekapaug Inn, a sister property to the restaurant, opening in October.

Each chef is allowed to have one non-culinary professional assist them in the competition, and Daniel Hostettler, the Ocean House's president and managing director, will team up with Backman.

Hostettler says he's "both excited and terrified."

"While charming, Jennifer is extremely focused and demanding, and some might say scary in her desire for perfection in her dishes, and I don't want to be the one to let her down," Hostettler says, noting that two weeks ago, right before a Friday night clambake at the Ocean House, Backman made him break down 200 lobsters until he was doing it fast enough and to her standards.

"To say she can be intimidating is an understatement," he says.

The restaurant donated an auction item to last year's event, and Hostettler says he was so moved by a young woman's story of how MASH provided her with a place to live and put her family back on their feet that he immediately said yes when asked to provide a guest chef for this year's event.

"We're so pleased to be part of such an extraordinary group of people who are giving back to the community," Hostettler says. "I encourage everyone to come to the event and hear more about MASH and what it does."

Awad is a 2009 graduate of the Connecticut Culinary Institute. He came onboard as the Oyster Club's sous chef after working under chef Michael White, owner of several of New York City's most celebrated Italian-influenced restaurants. Awad is experienced in cooking competitions, having won the San Pellegrino "Almost Famous Chef" national competition three years ago.

The Oyster Club is participating in the event for the first time, but the cause is close to the heart of the restaurant's owner Dan Meiser. Before opening The Oyster Club last fall, Meiser was general manager of Firebox restaurant in Hartford, which was funded by Melville Charitable Trust with the sole purpose of finding and eliminating the causes of homelessness in the community.

Meiser also points out that Awad grew up in a family headed by a single mother who worked two jobs to provide for him and his brother, which he says gives him a good understanding of the situation many families face today.

"Homelessness certainly is the guy on the side of the road with a sign asking for food-that guy is already homeless," Meiser says. "The real challenge is to help the single mom who is one paycheck away from becoming homeless."

Meiser thinks the event will be a lot of fun and is looking forward to seeing Rob Simmons, retired U.S. Army colonel and former U.S. Congressman from Connecticut — and his soon-to-be-father-in-law — assisting Awad in the competition. Meiser and Jane Simmons, executive director of the LaGrua Center in Stonington, are getting married in September.

"Rob is into cooking. He loves to cook. He went into the army as a cook," Meiser says.

This year's celebrity judges are Wally Lamb, best-selling author; Christian Jusell, founding host of Antiques Roadshow; Chief Lynn Malerba of the Mohegan Nation; and Roy Colebut-Ingram, Mashantucket Pequot Tribal councilor. Guests will have the chance to win the fifth seat on the judging panel. In addition, eight "Taster" seats will be auctioned off.

"We like to get a nice mix of people who have local ties and bring a celebrity component to our judging," Bates says. "Traditionally, we haven't had full-on food professionals because we are a community organization and it's important to us to involve a lot of folks. The Mohegan (tribe) and Mashantucket Pequots have been supportive partners with MASH for years. Wally Lamb is local and happens to be a famous writer. He's been delightful asking, 'What can I do to help?' As a live auction item he's offering a reading (from his upcoming novel, "We Are Water") and a one-hour discussion."

IF YOU GO

What: MASH Iron Chef Competition & Auction for Action

When: Friday from 6 to 10 p.m.

Where: St. Edmund’s Retreat at Enders Island, 99 Yacht Club Rd., Mystic

Tickets: $95 per person

Info: Purchase tickets and
get details online at www.
mashshelter.org

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