Passion comes in many forms, and when united in community support, it is a force that promotes positive change. The 8th Annual Guest Chef Series to support Family Services of Tulare County brought together a passionate cuisine, a chef with a passion for creating it, and a group of people with a passion for helping others.

“I’ve never done anything this big,” said Chef Ryan Lucas of The Chef’s Table and Glick’s & Co., when asked what it means to be a part of an event that has such a positive community impact. “I’m thankful and humbled by the opportunity,” he continued.

Ryan admits that he was initially overwhelmed by the idea of preparing food and hosting a cooking demonstration for such a large crowd. After having just over 250 community members in attendance last year, the 2016 Guest Chef Series tipped the scale at 300. But once he became more comfortable with the idea, any anxiety turned to organization and focus.

Few people get to witness behind the scenes of such an important event. “It’s an organic process,” said Caity Meader, executive director of Family Services. Caity adds that some years the group has chosen a chef and then decided on the theme. This year, they settled on the Italian theme and then went looking for a chef. Expertly trained in Italian cuisine, they found the perfect fit in Ryan.

The planning is no simple affair. Weeks before the event, the Family Services food committee, wine committee, Chef Ryan Lucas, and caterer, Chef David Vartanian of The Vintage Press in Visalia, began meeting to discuss the details. Once the plan was in place, Ryan had his own work to do in the form of a 12-hour day of food prep prior to the event.

Early Friday morning before the Saturday event, Ryan’s “light” prep began (if you can call peeling more than 400 prawns “light” prep). That is not to mention the hours put into stirring creamy, tender risotto. As for the day of the event, Ryan says, “Organization is key.” He adds that there is a lot of strategic planning that takes the form of standing and thinking. Tackling a food demo for a large group is no small feat.

All the preparation and organization proved its worth that Saturday evening as servers passed around aromatic trays of beautifully cooked pan fried tiger prawns lightly coated in a sauce made of rosemary, pancetta, and roasted garlic. It paired beautifully with the Pinot Grigio hand-selected by the Family Services wine committee. Not to be outdone were the crunchy, cheesy oven-baked risotto balls. As guests enjoyed each bite, Ryan explained some of the similarities between local rice found in nearby Sacramento and the Italian short-grain Arborio rice traditionally used to make risotto.

The hard work, passion, and Italian theme held true as the dinner course arrived and guests were presented with stuffed chicken amatriciana with spicy soft polenta, alongside freshly baked focaccia bread. Stuffed with thinly sliced Italian meats, the tender chicken with its crunchy coating joined the flavorful red sauce for a meal that rang of true culinary delight.

While enjoying the meal, it was clear that no detail was overlooked. The red plaid tablecloths created an old- fashioned Italian ambiance. Each table was adorned with flower arrangements set in upcycled Italian tomato cans next to full tins of imported Italian olive oil, which were available to attendees for a donation to the organization. A beautiful melody performed by Visalia Opera Company complemented the Italian theme and passion behind the grand evening.

The meal, entertainment, and cause left no question why this event grows year-after-year. As a private, non-profit organization, Family Services works to build
a community of safe homes, safe relationships, and safe children in an effort to create safer, healthier communities for everyone. It is what one might refer to as achieving La Dolce Vita, the sweet life, a message presented to each attendee on the event brochures. All proceeds from the Guest Chef Series went to support the organization’s efforts.

After a glance at the work that goes into this event, it is evident that its success is truly a team effort. Ryan is quick to mention that none of his work as Guest Chef would be possible without his supportive team.

Caity echoed that sentiment with gratitude in her voice as she mentioned Family Services’ incredible group of volunteers and board members that came together for this event. With that same gratitude, she also singles out an essential segment of their team, the community donors. The group consists of those who have generously donated to the event every year, as well as welcomed newcomers. “None of it would be possible without the support of our donors in the community,” said Caity.

It appears there is little rest for the weary. After a recovery time of about two weeks, the wheels will start turning with ideas for the theme of next year’s event and a chef to maintain the high standard of excellence of the yearly fundraiser. From the food to monetary support, the Annual Guest Chef Series is an example of how the passions of many come together to support the invaluable work of a local organization.