Five top chefs in Laguna Beach tapped for renowned OC Chef’s Table

By DIANE ARMITAGE

If you’re a foodie (like me), you probably dream that someday you’re going to have a great chef host a custom, never-seen-before and never-seen-again dinner for you and your closest friends.

With the Illumination Foundation’s return of its phenomenal OC Chef’s Table event on Sunday, March 18, your dream just came true. And, here’s the topper to the best dream ever – aside from rubbing shoulders all evening with your own table’s Chef and 32 of Orange County’s most acclaimed culinary wunderkinds, the proceeds raised go to Illumination Foundation’s mission to end homelessness in Orange County. 

Presented by Disneyland and brought to you by KPMG, Orange County’s most prestigious culinary fundraiser takes place again at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa. A few tables and individual tickets for OC Chef’s Table are still available at: ifhomeless.org/occt2018.

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OC’s Top Chefs Join Mickey Mouse

Presented by Disneyland Resort on Sunday, March 18, the prestigious OC Chef’s Table culinary event features 32 of the county’s top chefs raising funds for Illumination Foundation’s mission to end homelessness in OC

The event includes a cocktail reception, live entertainment, a silent auction and even table décor that jostles for first-place pageantry. Joined by L.A.’s Celebrity Chef Jet Tila, each chef is responsible for his or her own 10-top table of patrons, creating an encapsulated “atmosphere,” from table décor to lavish courses and cocktails prepared tableside.

Event features 32 of Orange County’s acclaimed chefs

OC Chef’s Table has tapped top talent from 18 cities, representing every section of “the orange,” from Brea to San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente.

This year, Laguna Beach had a record five invitations to the event, with returning chefs Ron Fougeray (Splashes) and Andrew Gruel (who established Slapfish’s second restaurant in Laguna Beach after his founding restaurant in Huntington Beach). 

Chefs Rainer Schwarz (Driftwood Kitchen/The Deck/Hendrix), Azmin Ghahreman (Sapphire) and Arthur Ortiz (Skyloft) are newcomers to the event.

The OC Chef’s Table Hosting Chef is, again, Disneyland Resort’s Culinary Director of Signature Restaurants, Andrew Sutton. A longtime friend of Chef Schwarz, Sutton personally reached out to ask that Schwarz get involved in the event. 

“It’s always great camaraderie when chefs are able to get together,” said Schwarz. “But when Andrew explained the cause and introduced me to what Illumination Foundation was doing, we were absolutely in.

“I like knowing that we’re all doing something together here that causes such significant change,” he explained.  

“It’s just such an honor to be a part of this circle of chefs,” said Skyloft’s Chef Arthur. “And, there’s really no better reason for us to all join together. Homelessness is all around us, in every city of Orange County. We can look to government or agencies and expect them to help these people or take care of the issue, but nothing’s really going to change until we all take on this responsibility with an understanding that these people are our people.”

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Chefs prepare and cook all food tableside at OC Chef’s Table

Another first-time entry, our new neighboring success story, Trevor’s at the Tracks in San Juan Capistrano, echoes similar sentiment. “We’re definitely seeing more homeless people here in San Juan,” says owner Trevor Baird. “It’s heartbreaking and it can seem overwhelming, but here’s our chance to act locally, from a grass roots level, and change this - permanently. That’s what our restaurant’s mission is all about. Illumination Foundation’s invitation is perfect timing and a perfect combination for what we’re committed to doing here in our own town.”  

Alarming statistics on homeless children

Illumination Foundation primarily focuses on helping homeless families. Today, there are more than 32,000 Orange County children living in “tenuous” housing (i.e. cars) or homeless shelters. 

“The most vulnerable homeless population is that of families,” says Illumination Foundation CEO & President Paul Leon. “We receive about 55 to 60 calls per week from families asking us for help. This week, we were able to take in 10 babies with their parents, but we had to say ‘no’ to 15 others who asked.” 

The County’s first emergency housing for struggling families

Last year, the Chef’s Table event raised more than $650,000, which allowed for the completion of the Illumination Foundation’s first Theriault Emergency House, a beautiful Stanton-based home that takes in homeless families with at least one child or pregnant woman. 

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The Theriault Emergency House for homeless families with children

Built from the ground up in just seven months, it houses up to nine families at a time with large private bedrooms and baths for each family, new laundry facilities on both floors, a rambling community kitchen and living room, and a fenced, grassy yard for children to play in. 

Most families stay for about a month, working daily with case workers, doctors and local hospitals to get their lives – and health – back on track. At month’s end, families are helped into permanent housing solutions or bridge housing while they seek out permanent residence.  

Proceeds from this year’s OC Chef’s Table 2018 will go to the construction of the country’s first Recuperative Care Housing Site for children. Working hand-in-hand with CHOC Children’s Hospital, Illumination Foundation’s recuperative care program will be a safety net for unstably housed children who are recovering from an illness or medical procedure.

“Our goal is to build at least five emergency houses in Orange County, each with our foundational pillars of service and resource attached,” says Leon. “At that point, we will be helping more than 1,200 families each year get the footing they need to stabilize their lives.”

The one visit that resulted in creating Illumination Foundation

Celebrating its tenth year, “accidentally” came into being when Paul Leon crossed the bridge from “those people” to “our people” thinking.

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Illumination Foundation CEO & President Paul Leon

While completing his MBA at UCI, he began working in the hospital as a qualified nurse to determine mother/baby risk for at-risk mothers. In the process, he made a visit to the OC Armory Emergency Shelter, which provides hot meals and sleeping quarters to at least 200 people nightly during cold weather months. He was astounded and appalled to see so many children in the facility, and took it upon himself to immediately find housing for a couple families whose children were extremely sick.

“In the weeks that ensued, I was consumed with trying to find housing for homeless families and realized it was tougher than I thought it was going to be – there simply was no housing,” says Leon.

“I took this issue back to my classroom and we began working on it as a class project. In short order, we had organized a medical team that began making ‘house calls’ to the homeless,” explains Leon.

From a classroom project idea, the Illumination Foundation has quickly grown to become a national example and leading advocate for breaking the cycle of homelessness. It addresses the issue in multi-pronged fashion, from establishing resource centers and children’s “after school” tutoring centers, to providing emergency and recuperative care housing, all while directly addressing vastly improved healthcare that includes substance abuse and mental health issues.

Perhaps the most telling statement of Illumination Foundation’s success: 30 percent of the Foundation’s staff is made up of people who were once homeless and helped by the organization. 

“Our only mission is to protect these people and treat them with the compassion, dignity and respect they deserve,” said Leon. “We have no other agenda.”

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