Dining for the Devastated

by Douglas Blyde - Thursday February 11, 2010 6:44 am

In aid of survivors of January’s earthquake in Haiti - the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere - Foodepedia's Sabrina Ghayour masterminded a fundraising banquet at Le Bouchon Breton restaurant, Spitalfields Market.

Are you a professional fundraiser?

No - I’ve spent the last decade working as an events organiser. Whilst the role has equipped me with relevant skills and confidence, sourcing every ingredient for a six-course feast for180 through donation alone has been a challenge, the likes of which I’ve rarely experienced.

So this isn’t your first charity banquet?

Actually, I helped coordinate two previous projects for ‘Action Against Hunger’. I admire their ethos of striving towards ‘a world without hunger’, reaching 40 countries over three decades. When I worked at the city’s ‘1 Lombard Street’ restaurant, we hosted the popular, amusing ‘Too Many Critics’ dinner. I also spearheaded a massive ‘Cake-Off’ competition at Taste of London, similarly sourcing donated ingredients and a bakery willing to craft 4,000 cakes to the recipes of critics, Charles Campion and Fay Maschler, and chefs, Antonio Carluccio and Giorgio Locatelli.

Have you been to Haiti?

I haven’t, and I suspect like many Brits, I rarely gave Haiti much thought before reportage of the disaster. But if I could get there and do something useful right now, I would, although I am aware how heart-breaking this could be.

How did you feel when you saw the breaking news of the initial earthquake, measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale? 

I’m ashamed that my initial my response was, ‘oh dear, how terrible’. Only a couple of days later did the gravitas of the tragedy truly sink-in. I decided then to commit myself to doing something beneficial. Being a Capricorn, when I set my mind to something, there’s usually no turning back!

What logistical issues did you encounter?

It has been such a blur of lightning-speed occurrences that I can’t isolate anything specific. Looking back, the whole idea was bonkers; I must have had one too many coffees that afternoon! However, when I posted a one-line update on Facebook stating my intent, within five minutes I had my venue and a fleet of volunteers. I awoke the next morning with the thought, ‘you idiot, what have you got yourself into?’ But ‘fortune favours the brave’, as they say... I found the more effort I put in, the more offers of help poured-in. At the start, I didn’t know whether I’d have a single prize to raffle, let alone 50!

How have friends/family reacted?

These kind of ‘short-lead’ projects can be a huge learning curve. You find out a lot about those around you. The most important thing is never to judge people on whether or not they choose to become involved. Having said that, most people who know me understand that this is exactly the kind of idea I would come up with and immediately showed faith.

Have you come up against criticism for raising money for food by decadently serving it?

Sadly, yes. In the first few days, I received some horrid e-mails, including one from a journalist who ‘found the concept of a feast in aid of starving people’ to be ‘genuinely disgusting.’ However, because the event featured top chefs (Atul Kochhar, Vickram Purewal, Chris Galvin, Herbert Berger and John Burton Race) it meant substantial media coverage and ultimately donations. Criticism is just an opinion. Whilst it hurts, you should always follow your heart and your instincts and do what feels right.

Looking back, have you surprised yourself by what you achieved in three weeks?

I’m still in shock. It doesn’t feel like it was something I did myself. But I guess when you know you have to do something, you close down mentally to the outside world and become a machine dedicated to executing the task at hand.

Did the chefs work well together?

I spent my time on the restaurant floor, so didn’t really get in on any juicy gossip. All I can say is that the food was fantastic, thankfully, so if there were any egos, they were clearly left at the door for this one.

Was there a favourite dish/wine match?

Galvin La Chapelle’s Chris Galvin received rave reviews for his buttermilk pannacotta with poached rhubarb. It was matched with a sweet elixir from Jurassic soils in France. I was busy with the auction, so was gutted at not being able to try it!

What was the most memorable auction item?

Incredibly, it wasn’t on the finalised inventory. Halfway through, chef John Burton Race approached the stage and offered us an incredibly generous weekend for four at his inn, ‘The New Angel’, Devon. It included a picnic on-board a Sunseeker gin palace, with Champagne, lobster and foie gras. As the final lot, I managed to eke £3k out of a very generous bidder.

What is your current total?

We are rapidly reaching £70k. But my work is not yet over. I fully intend to continue to raise funds and awareness.

Overall, are you touched by the generosity of the human spirit?

Beyond touched, Douglas. In many cases humbled, and in a couple of cases, moved to tears. It makes you realise that when people put their differences aside in pursuit of a common goal, much can be achieved in such little time. If only we could all be like this a little more often, the world would be a happier place.

What’s next?

Action Against Hunger has approached me to join their ‘Fine Wine Auction Committee’ to apply my special brand of ‘subtle motivation’ to proceedings. Of course, I am more than happy to commit. Right now, I have a long, long list of ‘thank-yous’ to post, which will keep me busy. A couple of days of relaxation would also be wonderful, although if I ever have a day to myself I get terribly bored. I also continue to volunteer for the young charity, ‘Popli Khalatbari’, named in honour of a fellow Iranian. It’s well-known in the Persian Community and my mother works for it. Khalatbari died unexpectedly aged 30. Her mother, Diana now works tirelessly, raising money for hospitals, foundations and disaster funds worldwide, as well as building orphanages and schools for children with special needs in Iran. This lady is inspirational - creating hope and wonder from personal loss. (www.pkcf.com)

What more can we do to help Haiti's survivors?

Donate! Donate! Donate! Visit Action Against Hunger’s website(www.actionagainsthunger.org.uk) and give as generously as possible. Even £1 is better than none. Think of it as a candle in a dark room...

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