Taste of the Nation is an event DC foodies eagerly await each year. Held in the National Building Museum on March 31st (TONIGHT!), the fundraiser is put on by Share Our Strength in order to benefit their campaign to fight childhood hunger in America, No Kid Hungry. Taste covers three floors and offers guests the chance to try hundreds of unique small plates, artisan bites, and desserts created by chefs hailing from DC staples like The Source, Blue Duck Tavern, CoCo Sala, Proof, Founding Farmers, Iron Gate, Le Diplomate, Ripple, and others. There’s an impressive mixology contingent to pair with the spectacular food: Creations comprised of Green Hat Gin, Knob Creek, Remy Cointreau, and other favorites are made by such notables as The Passenger’s Alex Bookless and Founding Farmer’s Glendon Hartley. This year food trucks like Dolci Gelati, Rockland’s BBQ Bus, NeatMeat, and DC Sliders are also participating. Taste of the Nation takes place in more than 30 cities across the country every year. The DC event is close to both Share Our Strength’s hearts and their offices – their headquarters are based in the District.
While Taste is a food- and drink-centric event, Share Our Strength focuses on ensuring guests remember the real reason for the gathering: Feeding hungry children across the country. Founded in 1984 in Capitol Hill by sister-brother team Bill and Debbie Shore in response to the famine in Ethiopia, Share Our Strength is now the largest anti-hunger organization in the country. The No Kid Hungry campaign, which began 5 years ago, focuses on giving children in need access to federal nutrition programs. These programs provide them with not only lunch during the school year, but breakfast every school day and food during summer breaks as well. The program works with the families of the children to teach them about proper nutrition and help them shop strategically in order to put food on the table everyday.
We had a chance to sit down with the staff at Share Our Strength’s sun-drenched DC headquarters to talk about what goes into Taste of the Nation DC – happening tonight! Grab your tickets! – and what the lucky guests attending this year’s event can expect.
Tell me a little bit about the organization.
Anjali Reddy, Manager of Consumer Communications: As a non-profit, a lot of the way we’re able to achieve that work is through the big fundraisers that we do. We have a wide variety; you’ve probably heard of Dine Out for No Kid Hungry. I think last year 9,000 restaurants across the country joined together to do various in-store promotions for us to raise money and awareness for our cause, and then of course there’s the Taste of the Nation event series. They’re very volunteer-driven, from chefs across the country who sign up to make food at the events to volunteers who help the events run. The events have raised more than $85 million dollars since 1988, so they’re definitely one of our largest fundraisers and some of our biggest presence in the various markets they take place in.
People know Taste of the Nation but maybe not No Kid Hungry, so this year we’re making a concerted effort to integrate No Kid Hungry into these events a little bit more, not only to raise the funds we need to do our work but to raise awareness for the problem itself and get people more engaged throughout the year, beyond just attending Taste events.
Sam DeNafo, Manager of Culinary Events: This will be our fifth year at the National Building Museum; previously we were at The Mellon Auditorium, and before that we were at the Hilton. We tend to avoid hotels and conference centers and things of that nature because they don’t have much character. The Mellon Auditorium was great; it’s a beautiful venue. Architecturally it’s a lot like the Building Museum we’re in now, but it’s smaller. We had fewer restaurants and fewer attendees. [The event] started selling out and more and more restaurants were excited about being involved, so we moved to the Building Museum.
For the time being I think we sort of found our home; we’re able to get about 1600 people in there. This year we’ll have 100 restaurants, mixologists, and food trucks combined, which is the most we’ve ever had. We’re definitely at capacity with that. It’s a good number; we want to get some of our biggest supporters and some of the best restaurants in DC packed in there with that amount of space and people.
Sam: Osteria Morini is one we’re really excited about; they just opened. Joe’s Crab Shack too. I think it’s really great to see the tried-and-true supporters come back every year and want to do more. They still get excited about what they’re going to produce. It’s kind of heartwarming to see how excited they get about the event, especially because they do so many other events… Belga Café is one of those. That’s Bart Vandaele’s restaurant. He participates individually as well as through Belga Café. Victor Albisu participates too – his restaurant is fairly new, Del Campo – and we’re really excited about it. Last year it was like a “Coming soon!” restaurant… This year they’ve been open for a while – people know the name – so it’s kind of exciting in a different way. Same with Brian Voltaggio; he’s one of our biggest chef supporters. Obviously he has restaurants all over the DC and Maryland area. His table gets a line; people are so excited to see him and take pictures with him.
Sam: Surprisingly power is a huge part of it – which restaurants need power and which don’t. It’s hard to run power to the center of the room… The layout is pretty fluid, except that we do put desserts on the west court. Most people when they enter go to the right, so it kind of makes sense to put the desserts on the west side… If you know someone needs power it’s probably meat or some kind of savory item, so that’s also another interesting way to plan – if you wanted to do courses, you could go to the center first to get your salads and your cold, etc. We don’t market that in any way, though.
Paul Rindfleisch, Senior Manager of Graphic Design: That’s a pro-tip from experience. I’ve seen people commit to dessert way too early.
Sam: Some of the chefs I mentioned, like Victor Albisu and Brian Voltaggio – they’re on our Chef’s Council, so we place them in the middle of the room where they’re prominent. The middle is where there’s more room for lines to form; like I said, Brian and Victor and Scott Drewno and Nick Stefanelli, who are our Chef’s Council, have a huge following, so allowing some wiggle room in terms of people lining up around them is important. Sometimes restaurants have sister restaurants – for instance, all the Kimpton restaurants all wanted to be next to each other… Same with Water & Wall and Maple Ave out in Virginia. They’re actually doing a little competition amongst themselves to see how many people come to each table. Belga and B2 wanted to be next to each other. Belga also has a strong relationship with Stella Artois, which is this beer sponsor for the event, so they’re close to him because his Belgian food works well with the beer. If you wanted to do a pairing you could get the Belgian beer and then go to Bart’s Belgian restaurant.
Sam: From a planning perspective, one of the cool things about the event is that it is changing every year. This year we have really fun new aspects of the event. We have a food truck area – we’ve never invited food trucks before. We have a whole room carved out for them. We also have a marketplace this year where small artisans and vendors in the DC area are bringing their product and selling them and then giving the profits as a donation to Share Our Strength. It’s just a cool way to get them involved; in years prior there wasn’t really a way for them to get involved in a seamless way… There’s always something new and exciting.
Anjali: From a planning perspective, seeing how genuinely passionate the chefs are about their involvement – they’re already doing so much by simply attending the event and being a part of it on Monday, but our Chef Council is so willing to do everything above and beyond in the event… Nick Stefanelli has been awesome… He’s been involved with us for a while, and he can speak authentically about the event and why it’s so important to support the work of the No Kid Hungry campaign. Brian Voltaggio has done amazing advocacy work for us; helping us to secure funding school breakfast programs in Maryland, for example.
Paul: From the attendee perspective, it’s great to get to experience the food and the drink and to get to try things you wouldn’t normally try, but in addition it’s great to get to talk to the chefs and have more a bit more of a personal interaction with some chefs that you love, or chefs that you haven’t heard of yet and are meeting for the first time. To hear them talking about the cause and the No Kid Hungry campaign is a great way… to get integrated with the cause and remember why you’re there.
Alex Cummings, Manager of Graphic Design: From a pure food perspective, I love to find new restaurants and I’ll go and collect all the business cards from the places that I like. The photo booth is really fun… There’re props. It’s a great night.
Anjali: One thing that I think really sets the No Kid Hungry campaign apart is that we’re able to relate these events directly back to the impact that they’re having. Yes, it’s great that we host these events and they raise a lot of money, but we’re able to directly tell attendees and our supporters across the country what that money is doing… I think it creates a really tangible impact… It helps people understand that they’re making a big difference.