Seasons by the Sea: The Helping Hands at Empty Bowls

Why is it always the same people who are willing to step up?
Colin Ambrose, the chef and owner of Estia’s Little Kitchen in Sag Harbor, was honored with the second annual Empty Bowls award on Sunday. Durell Godfrey

Project Most held its 10th annual Empty Bowls event at the American Legion Post in Amagansett this past rainy Sunday and it was packed, packed with volunteers from very young to kinda old, packed with chefs serving up delicious soups, and packed with Dreesen’s doughnuts and other baked goods for sale. There was live music and a pretty cake from Carissa’s Bakery served halfway through the event.

Project Most is a local organization that provides after-school and summer learning activities for 350 local children at the Springs School and the John M. Marshall Elementary in East Hampton.

There were more than 20 soups and I wish I could have tried every single one, but it was too hard to juggle notepad and pen, interview people, take pictures, and slurp soup. I managed to sample almost half, though, and every single one was delicious.

I have lived out here year round for 23 years. I have worked as a pastry chef in numerous restaurants during these years and have written about food for almost as many. Ergo, I have worked at many events such as Empty Bowls, either as a participant, volunteer, or reporter. And I have started to notice something: There is a small, core group of chefs, markets, and caterers that do all the work, all the heavy lifting, to help our community. They do it every single time they are asked. Some are big operations; some are tiny. Regardless, they always take the time to help.

I went to Empty Bowls loaded for bear. It is tempting to list the establishments that are always absent, never contribute or participate, are not a part of the community other than to take up real estate and make money, and do not buy any local fish or bread or cheese or wine or produce. Yes, I went with an empty stomach, a dark heart, and a poison pen.

I put this question to a number of participants and guests at Empty Bowls: “Why are you working at every single charity event all year round, and so-and-so and so-and-so have never done anything?” Most of the answers were carefully measured, kind and empathetic, and a few were along the lines of “Put your pen down, this is off the record!”

Cheryl Stair of Art of Eating was serving up her chef Eric Householder’s coconut curry soup with chickpeas, which was light, slightly spicy, and perfect for the cold rainy day. She kindly observed that “some people don’t know about it or don’t realize it’s a fun community thing, chefs getting together. It takes heart, energy, money. Some people just want to help — it’s only soup!” She talked about how fun it is to save the bits and bobs of locally grown produce in the summer, pop it into the freezer, and turn it into soups in the winter. “We save asparagus stems, they’re good, they’re organic, nothing gets thrown out.” She did concede that there are some restaurants that are asked to help with events, but “you just never hear back from them.” 

Mark Smith and Joe Realmuto of the Honest Man Restaurant Group are always helping at charity events on the South Fork. Mark pointed out that helping others “has to be part of the philosophy of your business” to begin with. If it’s not, that’s why you don’t ever see certain people here. Their La Fondita tortilla soup was one of the best I tried that afternoon, and the Nick and Toni’s mushroom barley soup was my virtuous dinner. Joe Realmuto pointed out that his own children benefited from the various Project MOST activities and several people at the event anointed him “the unsung hero” of the organization.

I ran into a friend who volunteers with the Ladies Village Improvement Society of East Hampton and she concurred with my somewhat Eeyore-negative-gloomy-observation. The L.V.I.S. asks just about every business in town for some kind of donation each year and “some you just never hear back from, so you give up asking,” she lamented.

Almond Zigmund (cool artist and wife of Jason Weiner, chef and co-owner of Almond restaurant and L&W Market) pointed out that maybe some restaurants “have a different point of view, and maybe this is not their community.” Jason, who can always be counted on for pithy bons mots, said, “there’s a universe of restaurants out here who give a sh*t. There’s a core crew that people know they can ask for help.” The Almond miso soup was awesome, better than most Japanese restaurant versions, full of seaweed-y umami with a handful of fresh spinach tossed in before serving.

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Joe Realmuto and Mark Smith of the Honest Man Restaurant Group, with Carolyn Stec, the executive chef of East Hampton’s Mill House Inn. Durell Godfrey
Serving up dessert were Alisha Frazer, Nichole Lopez, Sarah Morgan, Marifer Gallegon, and Malary Perez.Durell Godfrey