Super Bowl Week is about to get spicy.
Chefs representing the 32 cities of the National Football League will cook to raise money for hunger relief organizations at 7 tonight during the Taste of the NFL event at Tropicana Field. Chef Marty Blitz of Mise en Place restaurant will represent Tampa.
Celebrities scheduled to appear at the $500-per-ticket party include singer Faith Hill, E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg, "Top Chef" head judge Tom Colicchio and Miss America 2009 Katie Stam.
The goal: To raise tens of thousands of dollars for charity. In the 18 years since the event first took place in an office lobby in Minneapolis, restaurateur and Taste founder Wayne Kostroski and the participating chefs have raised more than $8 million for local food banks. Thirty percent of the profits from the Taste are donated to local hunger charities.
The event has evolved over the years to become one of the hottest pre-Super Bowl parties. The event has grown so much that it has its own pre-party.
On Friday night, the chefs and their staff mingled at a cocktail party at the Tradewinds resort on St. Pete Beach with former NFL players such as Karl Mecklenburg of the Denver Broncos, Earl Morrall of the Miami Dolphins and Eric Wright of the San Francisco 49ers. Spike Mendelsohn, Richard Blais and Andrew D'Ambrosi of Bravo TV's reality cooking competition "Top Chef" signed autographs for fans.
They'll be cooking tonight with Colicchio at the Taste.
Other than airfare and hotel accommodations, the chefs pay all their own costs to participate, including buying all ingredients and staffing their stations. (For local flavor, Ybor City's Columbia Restaurant and South Tampa pub and bistro Mad Dogs & Englishmen will each host a tasting station).
But this is a hard year to be in the fundraising business. Even being attached to something as seemingly bulletproof as the Super Bowl has not made the Taste immune to cutbacks in personal spending. Kostroski says ticket sales are off the pace of previous seasons. "It's a lot of money, and I understand that," he says.
To motivate locals to participate, Kostroski is stressing the impact that the Taste can have in hunger relief in Tampa at a time when demand is skyrocketing.
"We've got to do well this year because the need is the greatest I've seen in 18 years," Kostroski says. "On the other hand, companies are cutting back and being more efficient with their expenses. You've got bigger need, fewer resources and fewer dollars. Wonderfully, the thing that is up is the volunteerism. It's amazing. I really believe the glass is overflowing, as opposed to half-empty."