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Home / Life! / Dining / Masters of Taste celebrates its 7th year at the Rose Bowl

Masters of Taste celebrates its 7th year at the Rose Bowl

by May Ruiz
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Masters of Taste (MoT), L.A.’s premier food and beverage festival, returns to the 50-yard line of Pasadena’s Rose Bowl on Sunday, April 7, 2024 from 3 to 7 p.m. Celebrating its seventh year raising funds for Union Station Homeless Services (Union Station), the event brings together 100 restaurateurs and beverage company owners to serve food and drinks to approximately 3,000 attendees.

The brainchild of Rob and Leslie Levy, owners of The Raymond 1886 and Knox & Dobson in Pasadena, Masters of Taste was a concept Rob adapted from a childhood friend’s organization in Chicago called “Inspiration Café” which delivers sandwiches to the homeless. When the former CEO of Union Station asked him to be on the board, he set out to find a better way to raise funds than asking people to get all dressed up to attend a gala they only felt obligated to attend. Leslie came up with the idea of having chefs gather for an event that was so amazing it didn’t feel like it was a charity affair.  

Rob and Leslie Levy (third and fourth from left) at their Raymond 1886 Masters of Taste booth. | Photo courtesy of Masters of Taste

On their first year at the Rose Bowl, a spontaneous line dancing broke out on the field – a delightful occurrence that was totally unanticipated. It was when they knew they had stumbled upon a successful endeavor. There was another year when it rained which, incredibly, made it an even better event. Nobody left – 3,000 people on the field stayed through the rain; Levy said it was the most memorable year they’ve had.

As the organizers had previously done, Masters of Taste held its media night in the locker room of the Rose Bowl. On Feb. 28, 2024, we arrived at the venue and were pleasantly surprised to see twice the number of chairs and tables from last year’s media preview. Media attendance and sponsorship had increased dramatically since we first attended it. And as always, there was excitement among the individuals behind this annual event and the people covering it.

City Club in Los Angeles served hors d’oeuvres at Masters of Taste media night. | Photo by May S. Ruiz / Hey SoCal

After we had enjoyed a few drinks and hors d’oeuvres, the program began with a reminder of why we were there. Benjamin Turkle of Boomtown Brewery declared, “We’ve been working with homeless causes in L.A. for almost nine years now, helping on Skid Row. My wife’s partnership with Brilliant Corners to work with Union Station Homeless Services is just another foundation stone.”

Turkle went on to say, “We’ve always been told that we need to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps. But that’s very challenging when we don’t have bootstraps to pick ourselves up by. It takes a community and each individual citizen – whether or not you’re an entrepreneur in the service industry or in the thousands of other positions in our city – to lend threads to others so they can make their own bootstraps, to lend hands so others can pick themselves up as well. We’re all in it together and our rising tide will raise all ships. Thanks to Masters of Taste for doing this, for involving all of us in keeping this issue forefront.”

Anne Miskey, CEO of Union Station Homeless Services. | Photo by Margaret Gifford / Hey SoCal

Anne Miskey, CEO of Union Station, then stood up to welcome everyone. She said, “You’re more than  friends, you’re now part of our Union Station family. We’re here for a fun night to enjoy great food and drinks but they’re all for a great cause. Every bite of food and sip of drink at Masters of Taste helps the homeless in Los Angeles – could there be a better way to spend your evening?!”

Joking that she used to be thin, Miskey then thanked all the chefs and beverage masters for making Masters of Taste a possibility. She added, “Thank you to the media. It’s because of you that we’re able to get the word out … and year after year, we sell out. Union Station works with all sorts of people – those living in tents and whose lives have fallen apart. It is through the support of people like you that we’re able to walk alongside homeless people in their journey. We don’t just see people housed and get work; what we see is the return of hope and the ability for them to once again have dreams.”

In a bow to tradition, 2023 MoT host chefs Michael and Kwini Reed of Poppy + Rose and Poppy & Seed passed the baton to this year’s chef hosts Bret Thompson and Lucy Thompson-Ramirez, owners of Pez Cantina and Pez Coastal Kitchen. The husband and wife team has made a significant impact in the hospitality industry. With their passion for culinary excellence and warm hospitality, they have made a distinctive mark in the Los Angeles dining scene and beyond.

Kwini and Michael Reed (third and fourth from the left) passed the baton to Lucy Thompson-Ramirez and Bret Thompson (first and second from left). | Photo by Brianna Chu / Hey SoCal

Bret Thompson’s culinary journey began at the renowned California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. He honed his skills at esteemed establishments such as Aqua in San Francisco, Roy’s in Hawaii, and Pinot Blanc in St. Helena, California. Seeking international inspiration, he traveled to Spain to study under Chef Martin Berasategui at Restaurante Martin Berasategui, a Michelin 2-star establishment in Lasarte, Spain. He further expanded his culinary repertoire in Lebanon at Atlas Café, then studied under Chef Bernard Loiseau at La Cote d’Or – his Michelin 3-star restaurant in Saulieu, France – and then at L’Arpege, Chef Alain Passard’s Michelin 2-star restaurant in Paris.

Throughout his career, Thompson also had an extensive tenure with The Patina Group, working at multiple restaurants, running catering operations, and ultimately becoming the Corporate Executive Chef overseeing all restaurant operations for the entire chain. While there he garnered accolades – including being named “Chef of the Year 2002” by the Orange County Business Journal during his time as Executive Chef at Catal Restaurant in Anaheim.

The menu during media night. | Photo by May S. Ruiz / Hey SoCal

Thompson eventually moved on and co-founded and became a partner at the iconic MILK Ice Cream Parlor & Bakeshop in Los Angeles. He also opened his own Market Restaurant and Catering, which he successfully sold in 2014. In 2015, he joined forces with his wife to embark on a new culinary adventure as the proud owners of Pez Cantina. This seasonal, modern, coastal-inspired Mexican restaurant and bar in downtown Los Angeles quickly became a beloved dining destination. In October 2021, they expanded with a new location LA Burrito in Montebello.

Lucy Thompson-Ramirez brings her unique perspective and expertise to the front of the house at Pez Cantina. Born in Guanajuato, Mexico, she migrated to the United States with her family at a young age. She pursued her education at the University of Santa Barbara, majoring in sociology and minoring in Spanish. Her first career path led her into the fashion industry, where she excelled in sales and later established her own showroom with her brother called Siblings Showroom.

After a successful 18-year tenure in fashion, Thompson-Ramirez made a seamless transition into the hospitality industry alongside her husband. At Pez Cantina, her warm and welcoming demeanor shines as she personally greets regulars by name and fosters new connections. Her dedication to providing a home-like atmosphere has made Pez Cantina feel like an extension of their own family. In recognition of her leadership and contribution to the industry, she was appointed as president of the Latino Restaurant Association in 2023 and serves on the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board.

Seating during media night at Masters of Taste. | Photo by May S. Ruiz / Hey SoCal

Two weeks ago, Thompson and Thompson-Ramirez opened Pez Coastal Kitchen in Pasadena which offers a diverse menu featuring sea-to-table and farm-to-table cuisine – showcasing the best of seasonal California flavors. The restaurant highlights their expertise in curing, smoking and dry-aging meats and seafood, as well as their partnerships with local farmers and specialty producers. With a focus on creating a modern coastal dining experience, they aim to contribute to Pasadena’s thriving culinary scene and bring a fresh new concept to the city.

As the evening wound down, Shawn Morrissey, Senior Director of Advocacy and Community Engagement at Union Station as well as head of the Lived Expertise Advisory Panel at the the organization, county and state level, shared his moving experience as someone who was once an unhoused individual. He related, “In 2002, when I was almost 40, I arrived at Union Station with two black eyes, a gash on my forehead, and practically naked. Besides being homeless, I was also trying to get help overcoming a decades-long drug addiction due to trauma. And for the first time in my life, I was met with unconditional regard and I was nurtured. I was brought into a community where people wanted an authentic relationship with me. These were the things that made a difference.”

Masters of Taste organizers and participants during media night at the Rose Bowl locker room. | Photo by Brianna Chu / Hey SoCal

“We used to make homeless individuals jump through hoops and blame them for the situation they’re in, make them earn their way into housing or their way out of the streets,” continued Morrissey. “All that did was make the homeless problem worse. We know today there are best practice models – housing first, harm reduction, post-trauma care, etc. – which make us healthy.”

“I want to end with two thoughts – people are not broken; systems are. One of the things we hear a lot is that drug addiction drives people to homelessness but what we really know is that it’s a symptom of larger systemic and structural issues. In the 16 years that I’ve worked on the streets with people, I have yet to meet someone who chose not being sober over getting housing,” Morrissey concluded.

Masters of Taste at the Rose Bowl. | Photo courtesy of Masters of taste

Union Station has grown to be one of the best homeless services agencies in Los Angeles and is the lead county agency for Service Planning Area 3 (SPA 3). For over 50 years, it has been coordinating homeless services in 38 communities spanning from Eagle Rock to Pomona. It has seen a 97% success rate in permanently housing people since adopting the Housing First model. But its mission transcends providing temporary shelters; it is committed to creating lasting solutions for homelessness through housing, supportive services, and connection to the community.

Every dollar raised at Masters of Taste benefits the work of Union Station to end homelessness. Over the last six years, MoT has donated close to $3 million to help countless families and individuals find a secure and welcoming place to call home.

So purchase your tickets to the 2024 Masters of Taste for a really fun Sunday afternoon hanging out with other foodies while doing your share in helping solve the homelessness crisis.          

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