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Home / Neighborhood / San Gabriel Valley / Pasadena Independent / Masters of Taste 2022 — a delicious way to donate to a worthwhile cause

Masters of Taste 2022 — a delicious way to donate to a worthwhile cause

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Two years after the pandemic unceremoniously canceled the Masters of Taste’s planned event, it’s coming back to Pasadena! So mark your calendars for the Masters of Taste’s 5th Anniversary to be held on Sunday, April 3 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the world-famous Rose Bowl.

Approximately 100 Los Angeles-area food and beverage experts will again gather in one place to create masterpieces for Southern California’s gastronomic aficionados, all for a worthwhile cause.      

Masters of Taste 2019 was a sold-out event that attracted over 3,000 guests and garnered media attention throughout Southern California and beyond. This fifth-anniversary event is also expected to bring over 3,000 food and beverage enthusiasts together for one afternoon to celebrate this exhilarating festival, which will include the finest fare from culinary masters and restaurants, delectable sweets prepared by L.A.’s top sweet masters, and leading beverage masters.

A Media Night was held on Thursday, March 3, at the locker room of the Rose Bowl for a sampling of what foodies can expect at Masters of Taste 2022 and to introduce this year’s host chef, Vanda Asapahu. At the organization’s inception in 2016, she was one of only two female chefs. And now she’s the first female chef to take on the mantle of this prestigious food festival.

Vanda Asapahu is the first female chef host of Masters of Taste | Photo courtesy of Masters of Taste

Chef and owner of Ayara Thai Cuisine, Asapahu went to college at UCLA and to graduate school at Yale. She then spent four years living, traveling, and working her way through Thailand before returning home to Los Angeles. During her stay in her native country, she absorbed the Bangkok street food scene and revived old family recipes. Taking up the torch of her family’s culinary tradition, she brought back these treasured old recipes and new flavors to share at Ayara Thai. And in May 2019, Ayara Thai Cuisine was named one of “Michelin Guide California’s 2019 Bib Gourmands.”                    

Masters of Taste is the brainchild of Rob and Leslie Levy, owners of The Raymond 1886 in Pasadena. He recalls what drew him to this endeavor, “This goes way back in my childhood. My oldest friend in the world started an organization in Chicago called Inspiration Café, delivering sandwiches to the homeless when she was working as a cop. Then she ended up opening a restaurant for the homeless where they could come in, order off the menu, be served with dignity, and leave with no check to pay. If they were a good client, they were invited to work there and learn a trade. That grew into something huge, with multiple restaurants and cafes, cookbooks, and job training. She did this for 20 years and never took a paycheck – she did it for the love of it. She worked as a massage therapist to pay the bills while she grew this multimillion-dollar organization. It gives me shivers just thinking about her and what she has accomplished – she’s quite a remarkable individual and the most positive person you could ever meet in your life.”

Rob Levy, along with his wife, founded Masters of Taste | Photo by May S. Ruiz / Beacon Media News

“When the former CEO of Union Station Homeless Services asked me to be on the board, I immediately agreed,” continues Levy. “Then we thought we had to change the way we raise funds – we had been to one too many galas where nobody wanted to go, but got dressed up and went anyway because we felt obligated to. We figured we needed to create an amazing event where people aren’t thinking it’s a charity affair and Leslie came up with this idea of getting other chefs to gather for a cause. And what better place to do it than on the field of the Rose Bowl. Thus, Masters of Taste was born.

“We reached out to other chefs that we had done events with over the years and also through Lawrence Moore. When we explained what we were trying to accomplish, everyone agreed to participate. And they were absolutely thrilled when they learned that it was going to be at the Rose Bowl field. The first year that we did Masters of Taste, participants were incredulous when we told them to be on the field for the load-in because events are usually held only at the perimeter. One guy serving for a brewery had played football in college and played on the Rose Bowl field; it was his first time back there since. He actually got teary-eyed at the recollection because now he was there for a reason other than football.

“That same year, a spontaneous line dancing broke on the field – DJs played music and in the middle of everything, there must have been 100 people line dancing. It was a delightful occurrence that was totally unanticipated. That was when we knew we were on to something.       

The Raymond 1886 team at a past ‘Masters of Taste’ event | Photo courtesy of ‘Masters of Taste’

“Then we had one year when it rained which, unbelievably, made it an even better event. Nobody left – 3,000 people on the field and they all stayed through the rain. It was the most memorable year we had. We set out to create an event that was like having a great Sunday afternoon out and it has taken on a life of its own. People want to do good – helping other people is now a movement.”

Lawrence Moore, principal of public relations firm Lawrence Moore & Associates, was one of the founding members of the group that puts up the event. She talks about the inception and evolution of Masters of Taste.

“I had known and worked with Rob and Leslie Levy for several years at the time he was thinking about partnering with an organization for a fundraising event,” he said. “When he sat on the board of Union Station and saw that the homelessness problem was growing – probably well before the rest of us ever realized it – he and Leslie decided that was where they wanted to focus their energies. They came up with the idea of creating an event and having it at the Rose Bowl. There were plenty of naysayers who said they wouldn’t be able to pull it off because no one had ever been allowed to use the field and the cost would be prohibitive even if they were able to.

“However, Rob and Leslie were undeterred; they were determined to do this. They gathered everyone – Amanda Green; Dana Levy, the Assistant Director of Development at Union Station at the time; me; and a friend and colleague of mine Dennis Richardson, whom I brought along, and who’s now our Event Producer. We literally sat down for lunch and just hashed out details, including a to-do list, names of people we needed to call, and so on. It was then decided that we were going ahead with the plan and this was the team to do it. From that day on, I became the event’s public relations person. We had the honor of creating the name and the strategy; we wanted to identify it as a food festival rather than a charity event for the first year, to build excitement from the culinary and beverage standpoint.”

Moore adds, “We met with people at Union Station and when we told them our concept, they were uncertain about it initially. They were used to the standard model of fundraising – holding a gala or a dinner. Additionally, we told them that we wanted to promote it as a luxury food festival instead of a fundraiser; that was the biggest obstacle we had to overcome. But they eventually came around and we held the first Masters of Taste on Sunday, April 3, 2016.

Masters of Taste’s 5th Anniversary Media Night | Photo by Brianna Chu / Beacon Media News

“The experience from that was very positive – we made half a million dollars the first year so we were able to prove we could raise money through ticket sales and private company sponsorships. We had an easier time for our second year because the Rose Bowl people got over their trepidation at using the space for a food festival and they even offered the option to have a Media Night. That’s when we announced the charity and that 100 percent of the proceeds will benefit Union Station. I think that was better received on the second year than it would probably have been the first year.”

“Being a member of the founding team and working on it as well, I am excited because I need to know that the money is going where it’s supposed to go. That was more impactful for me,” declares Moore. “As the years have gone by, I have had the opportunity to work directly with our media sponsors and build a relationship with them. Moreover, we are now able to invite more media to the actual event. And because everyone in the media has been introduced to the charity personally, they have a bigger investment in the event’s success. They are now part of the team and have put Masters of Taste on the map as L.A.’s foremost food event. It highlighted the cause and gave integrity to the event.”

‘Masters of Taste 2022 Team and Participants | Photo by Brianna Chu / Beacon Media News

The return of Masters of Taste this year has taken on an even greater significance. Anne Miskey, Union Station’s CEO, expounds, “Two years ago, Covid hit. And one of the first things that all of us heard was stay home to stay safe. The people we serve don’t have homes. So we had a crisis on top of a crisis here in Los Angeles. I’m very proud to say that my staff all went into high gear not only to help all of those people living on our streets, but also to keep them safe from Covid. Over the last two years we opened some sites – hotels and other buildings – where we could bring people inside safely.

“I remember sitting down and talking to one gentleman who had been living on the median down the street in his tent. He spoke about what it was like to come in a room, with a bed and a bathroom, a microwave and a coffee pot, and to be treated with dignity and respect. Of all the things he said to me, what hit me the most wasn’t the bed but of having someone acknowledge his humanity and care what happens to him. And that is the work that we do at Union Station. We recognize the humanity in all of these people living on our streets – we walk beside them to get them permanently housed, gain stability, and be able to hope and dream again.”

Miskey says further, “The people we serve have been hit incredibly hard, but we’re not the only ones. We know that the restaurant industry suffered over the last couple of years. So I want to thank all our chefs, our beverage masters, our vintners, our distillers for staying with us after two years of hell.”  

Union Station Homeless Services CEO Anne Miskey | Photo by Tom Williams / Beacon Media News

Asapahu underscores what Miskey has pointed out, “This year’s event will have over a hundred culinary, beverage, and sweets masters. Many of us are still understaffed, we still have ingredient and raw material shortages, and every issue possible. But what sets people in the restaurant industry apart from others is their willingness to give and give and give, until we have nothing left to give. There are a lot of restaurants that couldn’t join Masters of Taste this year, but please show all the love and support to those who are going to be there. We’re barely getting out of the pandemic and they’re donating their time and their food.”

“This is L.A.’s biggest food event. And every dollar goes to Union Station Homeless Services, which provides meals, housing, and services to the homeless community of Los Angeles. There are currently 66,000 people in Los Angeles who are homeless, which is probably an under-reported number, and it breaks my heart. And while this issue can’t be solved overnight,  every guest, participant, and media person attending Masters of Taste is working towards a solution,” concludes Asapahu.

The pandemic has challenged all of us; we have been tested and stretched to our limits. And the restaurant business has been the hardest hit. Many restaurants were forced to shutter permanently and those that have managed to reopen when it was safe continued to struggle. Even as health and safety protocols have been eased, social distancing and masking mandates lifted, restaurateurs still have difficulty finding people to work. No dining place – whether it’s a sit-down restaurant or a drive-thru – has been spared the staff shortage. And yet when they were called to come and help, they happily stepped up to the plate.

Masters of Taste 2022 will be an extraordinary event not only because it’s poised to break its all-time record of raising money to help L.A.’s homeless population, but more so because it will demonstrate the resilience of humankind and endless generosity and giving spirit of restaurateurs and beverage company owners. Let’s eat and drink to them and the event’s great success!

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