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Home / Life! / Dining / Masters of Taste 2023 celebrates Union Station Homeless Services’ 50th anniversary

Masters of Taste 2023 celebrates Union Station Homeless Services’ 50th anniversary

by May Ruiz
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By May S. Ruiz 

Masters of Taste returns to the Rose Bowl on April 2, 2023, commemorating its sixth year raising funds for Union Station Homeless Services. About 100 restaurateurs and beverage company owners come together for this event, and from 3 to 7 p.m. they serve food and drinks to approximately 3,000 attendees.      

Homelessness has always been heartbreaking. But it becomes deadly when severe weather adds to homeless people’s plight. During winter, there’s a race to make sure they are housed before temperatures dip to near freezing. From November through March 1. Pasadena had over 27 inches of rain, rendering the homeless population in worse circumstances.

An L.A. Times article published on Feb. 23, 2023, reported that “Homeless services providers were struggling with shortages of shelter space Thursday as a rare winter storm raised the danger level for thousands of people living outdoors, with a forecast of three days of rain, freezing temperatures, blizzard-strength wind and low-elevation snow.”

On March 1, 2023, Masters of Taste held its media night (read Brianna Chu’s article about what to expect at the event) in the locker room of the Rose Bowl. As always, there’s excitement among the individuals behind this annual event and the people covering it. But there’s also a sense of great urgency to support Union Station in their relentless work of providing shelter for the homeless population who are now, more than ever, in dire need.

Masters of Taste founder Rob Levy | Photo by May S. Ruiz / Hey SoCal

Masters of Taste is the brainchild of Rob and Leslie Levy, owners of The Raymond 1886 in Pasadena and Knox & Dobson. 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.”

“When the former CEO of Union Station 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, of Lawrence Moore and Associates (one of the original founders, Moore is the person responsible for getting media coverage for Masters of Taste). 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 out 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.       

“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.”

Ann Miskey, Union Station CEO | Photo by Meg Gifford / Hey SoCal

Anne Miskey, CEO of Union Station, reminds that while this annual spring festival at the Rose Bowl is the foremost food event in L.A., it serves a more important role — Masters of Taste celebrates the heart that’s in Los Angeles.                                            

“The work we do is hard; we know homelessness is a major crisis here — there are so many vulnerable people on our streets and we work tirelessly at Union Station,” Miskey states during the media preview. “But we truly could not do it alone. And what you are doing by being here and supporting Masters of Taste is incredibly inspiring and helps us keep going because it shows that people do care, that people do want to make a difference. And I cannot tell you how much of a difference you make. We’re all enjoying the food and the wine but at the heart of that is giving back.”

“We work with thousands of people every year and sometimes it becomes this massive homelessness issue,” Miskey says further. “But it makes a difference if we put names and faces to it. So I want to tell you a little bit about Jose. He is a 74-year old gentleman from Puerto Rico. He had a job and was just living a normal life there and then he got very ill with heart problems during the major hurricane. Puerto Rico was in shambles; he was desperately ill and he couldn’t get help, so he came to Los Angeles for medical services. After his heart surgery, he was told that the hospital didn’t take his insurance and he left the hospital with a huge debt. He then lived in his car and struggled to survive. And then COVID hit. During that time everyone was being told to stay home to stay safe — and he didn’t have a home. Union Station stepped in with Project Room Key; we took some hotels where we were able to put people in.”

“My staff happened to meet Jose in his car and brought him into a warm hotel room, with his own bathroom, and three healthy meals a day,” adds Miskey. “But more than just a room, a bathroom, and food, he had people surrounding him who cared and wanted to make a difference in his life. After we worked with him and got to know him, we got him an apartment. He now lives in his own apartment — he has a living room, a kitchen, and a bedroom.”

One of the things Union Station staff does is to pay a visit to the people they’ve helped house to interview them and capture some of their stories. Miskey relates, “Jose went out and bought a gift for our staff because he said, ‘My mama taught me to never have someone come to your home without giving them something to take back with them.’ So here’s a man who had nothing and he’s making sure that he’s giving back to us. If you see Jose now, you see a man with smiles on his face and his life is back together again.”

Miskey concludes, “As you eat these amazing food and drink these amazing beverages, remember what you’re doing. You’re helping people like Jose, Quintana, and Mary — people who have lives and families but who, for health reasons and other circumstances, had ended up on the street. It’s a fun event and we all enjoy it, but behind it is saving people’s lives. And for that, I thank each and every one of you. I want you to leave tonight knowing that your heart and compassion are making a huge, huge difference.”

Host chefs Michael and Kwini Reed of Poppy + Rose and Poppy & Seed will continue the Masters of Taste’s tradition of making a difference through successful fundraising for Union Station.    

Preview of what attendees will enjoy at Masters of Taste 2023 | Photo by May S. Ruiz / Hey SoCal

Michael is a classically trained chef and restaurateur, who has spent 19 years as a chef for restaurants across New York and Los Angeles. Born and raised in Oxnard, California, Michael grew up around the barbecue and the smell of fresh, home-made pies. His family cooked every day, pulling ingredients straight from the garden which went on to inspire his passion for food and hospitality.

Kwini is a Southern California native, wife, mother, and entrepreneur. She comes from a large family that values community, generosity, and a strong work ethic – traits that have helped her succeed in her career and personal endeavors. A graduate of California State University, Fullerton with a Bachelor of Science in marketing, she has over a decade of experience in business, finance, and human resource management, having worked at companies throughout LA, including The Standard Hotel, Band of Gypsies, and Brandy Melville USA.

The Reeds are the co-owners of two Los Angeles restaurants, Poppy + Rose of Downtown and Anaheim’s Poppy & Seed. Additionally, they run an upscale catering company, Root of All Food. As if their culinary accomplishments aren’t enough, they’re also in the process of developing a nonprofit to help convey the importance and potential of food to younger generations by coordinating lessons with local chefs, internship programs, and more.

Attendees at this year’s Masters of Taste are assured of having a fantastic time. As Vanda Asapahu, last year’s Masters of Taste host chef, declares “Kwini and Michael are inspiring human beings and together they make a dynamic team.”

So put on your party hat and get ready to eat and drink to your heart’s content as you help Union Station celebrate its 50th anniversary at the 50-yard line at the Rose for Bowl for Masters of Taste 2023! See you there!        

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