Chef Todd Johnson, co-owner of Rumrunners, Run Agrounds and The Joint at Cape Harbour had a wildly successful turnout with Rumrunners ninth annual Celebrity Chef Dinner and Auction on Thursday. This event, which has had increased popularity every year, is one of the largest fund raisers in Cape Coral and supports The Children's Hospital of Southwest Florida.
"The first year we held the event Rumrunners had just opened," Johnson said. "My restaurant partner had cancer and he was struggling with chemotherapy and radiation. While he was recovering in the hospital, Frank Haskell and Jimmy Roberts came into the hospital to talk about Barbara's Friends - they asked if they could do an event partnering and team up for fund raising. They wanted to do a celebrity waiter event with a sit-down dinner. We felt we could step it up by bringing in well-known local chefs to cook in the dining room at the event. The event flows so that there are no restrictions on time and people can come and go as they please, visiting each chef's table in a casual environment.
"We had to postpone the first year because of Hurricane Charley. Even with the postponement in the summertime in Southwest Florida, the event brought in $35,000. Last year, we shattered the previous amount of $50,000 by raising $86,000. This year was $135,000. The difference between our fund raiser and many others is that we don't bring in more people each year and have many of the same attendees every year. It's because every year the generosity becomes stronger. Every year we limit it to 300 people and are sold out, with the exception of the first year when only 200 came because of the postponement due to Hurricane Charley. Without advertising, we have the same 200 people each year because it is an event for a good cause that if fun and enjoyable with incredible food from the celebrity chefs.
The celebrity chefs for this year’s celebrity chef auction at Rumrunners: Chef Norman Love, Chef Harold Balnick, Chef Brian Roland, Chef Fabrizio Aielli, Chef Ron Duprat, Chef Todd Johnson and Chef Ralph Centalonza and each chef’s staff. Also shown is Ben Nordstrom, a patient of the Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida and Honorary Chef for the evening.
"At this particular event, the live auction was unbelievable to see local Southwest Florida residents open up their wallets as they did for this event. Everyone was a year-round resident and to see them open their wallets was truly amazing. Each year we try to make it better than the last and every year, we try to figure out how to make next year better and it just happens. The great news was $135,000 and the bad news is that we have to beat that next year but with the support we have from the community for this even, we are confident we will meet that goal. "
Johnson continued, "I can't put into words how much it means to me to participate it and how touching it is. There are so many volunteers that put in so much time to bring this together. Chefs are asking to be involved and those that are invited not only donate their time but don't submit a bill for their food."
Johnson further stated "Ben Nordstrom was amazing. As a cancer patient of the Children's Hospital of Southwest Florida currently undergoing treatment, he is in his second year attending Cooking with Todd. We surprised him at the dinner this year with a custom chef coat like all the other chefs and he helped me plate and serve the dishes."
Although tired, Ben stayed through most of the auction because it was important to him to be there for the kids and he brought the house down when he bid $250 for a warming blanket to be matched by Michele Eddy, spurring many other donors for this cause.
"Last night was magic _ you go to a fund raising event in Fort Myers or Naples in February when everyone is in town for season - you may see something similar but sleepy August in Cape Coral with a hurricane on the way to sell out and get the bids we got from year round residents is incredible."
Michele Eddy, matching sponsor donor for the Children's Hospital bed warming blankets, is very involved in supporting the Children's Hospital of Southwest Florida.
"Our family was struck with illness; our baby Jace, who is now 19 was literally saved by the Children's Hospital of Southwest Florida, here in our own backyard," Eddy said. "We have been involved with the Children's Hospital since 2000 -Jace had five years of treatment because she had relapsed with leukemia and we pretty much lived at the hospital from ages 7-12. It was the best the worst kind of experiences for us because of the creation of a whole new world of people that we never knew existed. Last night I was hugging nurses that I hadn't seen in years. We are traveling this summer to my children's colleges and we flew in specifically to attend this event and will be leaving tomorrow."
Jace Eddy is at Boston College now and is featured on their website from when she starred on a Lee Memorial Health System billboard locally that said 'Goodbye Leukemia Hello College'".
Michele Eddy continued, "For all the years Jace was in the hospital, it was our art retreat, bringing art supplies in for Jace to work with to take her mind off her treatment because we both love art. Jace is now majoring in art therapy at Boston College."
Jace said she wanted to come to the event specifically to meet Ben Nordstrom.
"I wanted to talk to Ben and tell him that he is not the only one going through this and that there is an end in sight. Ben is one of the reasons I want to major in art therapy."
This is one of the many reasons that there are so many supporters of the building of a new Children's Hospital of Southwest Florida so that our local children can be treated here in their hometown and not have to travel to Tampa or Miami for treatment. At press time, more than $135,000 was raised with additional money still to be tallied. The huge jump in generosity and bidding from last year's $86,000 represents a significant increase in giving.
Kellie Burns-Garvey served as the emcee and Scott Robertson served as live auctioneer.
Highlights of the live and silent auction included frenzied bidding on the New York Yankees vs. Tampa Bay Rays Labor Day weekend showdown and a luxury trip package to Napa Valley. Chef Todd Johnson (Rumrunners, The Joint, Run Agrounds), Chef Harold Balink (Cru) and Chef Norman Love (Norman Love Confections) donated an extravagant nine-course dinner prepared by them was the top seller of the night at $6,500. Other top bidders took home a six- course bountiful harvest in-home private dinner for 10 by contemporary chef Justin Fleming of Hemingway's Island Grill, which sold for $4,500. The bidding was also spirited on a four-course dinner for six by Chef Melissa Talmage of Sweet Melissa's Cafe on Sanibel Island and the opportunity to sit in the audience for a taping of the David Letterman show.
A truly moving part of the live auction was a call to the community to purchase blanket warming systems for children who need to be kept warm after surgery or chemotherapy treatments. Fort Myers resident Michele Eddy announced that she would match any contributions of $250 toward the blanket warmer which really got the room going and hands were raised everywhere. A poignant moment that brought the cause home when Ben Nordstrom, a Children's Hospital of Southwest Florida cancer patient raised his hand indicating that his family would donate $250 to help his fellow patients battling cancer and blood disorders. At press time, seven blanket warmers were purchased with money still flowing in; the hospital hopes to purchase eight, in total, for patients.
Duane Higgins, director of Development for the Lee Memorial Hospital System Foundation and a Cape Coral resident who was the team lead with Katy Martinez for this year's event said "It as an incredible outcome from one of the most exciting events that the Foundation hosts every year. This year we raised the most money we have ever raised to support kids with cancer and Barbara's Friends. The Rumrunners celebrity chef event grows every year as we add new and exciting features to one of the most popular culinary events in Cape Coral and Southwest Florida. Much thanks and appreciation should go to Chef Todd Johnson and his partners Jeff Gately and Ralph Centalonza for opening their hearts and restaurant to kids with cancer."
"It is our true honor to partner each year with Chef Todd Johnson, Chef Ralph Centalonza, Chef Fabrice Aielli and Chef Norman Love and their special celebrity chef friends for this premier Children's Hospital culinary evening benefiting our pediatric cancer patients," said Jeannie Cummings, Lee Memorial Health System Foundation senior director of Marketing. "We could not save the lives that we do each and every day without the philanthropic support of the Southwest Florida community. "