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Food The Chefs:

Cookies for Kids’ Cancer

Photography by Winnie Au

A mother and father whose lives turned upside-down after a routine pediatric well-child visit, a little boy who had a passion for cooking and fought for his life, a damn good cookie sale that made a world of a difference in the battle against childhood cancer and a community of caring chefs who can help make it better. This is the story of the Cookies for Kids’ Cancer foundation and Chefs for Kids’ Cancer, a benefit I was fortunate to attend last week that raised $1.2 million for the cause.

Who knew something as simple as a cookie could make a difference against a disease as formidable as cancer? The unthinkable changed the course of Gretchen and Larry Witt’s lives in February 2007 when their two-and-a-half-year-old son Liam was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. And while this is indeed a story filled with tremendous grief, it is also one of unwavering spirit, rising above tragedy and making a difference. The motto for Cookies for Kids’ Cancer is together we can. With a rather simple, grassroots notion of a bake sale, the organization has raised over $10 million and has funded 80 research projects. Those 80 projects have led to 30 treatments children are receiving today.

I was so moved by Gretchen and Larry’s experience that I was inspired to do my own small part in sharing Liam’s story and his legacy. Today I share a recipe from Dan Kluger, who is a chef co-chair for the Chefs for Kids’ Cancer gala along with fellow chefs Marc Forgione, James Kent and Marc Murphy. Gretchen shared, “After Liam lost his 4-year battle, we had a few chefs come to us and say we should think about having an event to raise money for research.” It was Dan and his wife Hannah who originally encouraged Gretchen to explore the idea of creating a chef-based event. And today I was invited into their home to cook Dan’s swoony black bass and cauliflower dish, which was a part of his menu at this year’s benefit.

Chefs for Kids’ Cancer 2016 was an incredible event — 20 renowned chefs, 400 guests and 11,900 cookies. Its goal was to raise awareness and funding for pediatric cancer, but the energy, while at times emotional, was also a lot of fun. The chefs were stationed in the center of the room so the dinner guests could see them cook, chat and engage with them. It was a profound night, and it arose because a mama endured tremendous devastation. “I have lost the greatest thing a parent can ever suffer – my child was taken from my arms by a disease I couldn’t do anything against,” Gretchen said. Completely vulnerable, and with an open heart, she dreamed big and floated an idea into the universe.

“I simply asked people to join this cause that is much bigger than any one individual and be part of a community who together can help make it better. And wouldn’t you know it, we received an overwhelming response of people opening up their hearts, donating their talent and making sacrifices to help kids everywhere battle a disease that no child should even know exists. The chef community is such an incredible group of hard working, caring and passionate mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters.”

Gretchen believes the plight of pediatric cancer is one that first requires education to let people know about the problem, and then a way for people to get involved, in order to make an impact.

Gretchen came face-to-face with the lack of awareness when she learned that childhood cancer is the number one disease killer of children in the U.S. She was shocked to never have heard this staggering fact before. From that moment on, she knew it wasn’t that people didn’t care about pediatric cancer, it was that they barely knew about it.

“Our organization is one that was born with grassroots efforts being held across the country, in all 50 states and 15+ countries around the world with the message that every dollar counts which makes everyone feel like they are part of the solution. Thousands of events take place from elementary students to businesses. There is such a sense of community when people work together, the same way that there is a sense of community at the Chefs for Kids’ Cancer event.”

And while this year’s fabulous Chefs for Kids’ Cancer benefit has come to a close, Cookies for Kids Cancer efforts take place 365 days a year. The organization encourages people to get involved and take an active stance in reallocating a very unbalanced piece of the charitable pie; although childhood cancer is the number one disease killer of children in the U.S., it receives less than 4 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s $5.2 billion budget.

“Children are our future and since we do so much to ensure they are safe and healthy, why wouldn’t we be doing more to help battle this insidious disease?” Gretchen said. “Wishes and prayers can’t move science forward. To move science forward, we have to invest in it and less than a 4 percent slice of the research pie isn’t enough.”

Please take a moment to get involved, donate your time, create a cookie sale, educate yourself and stand up for a child. Make a difference in their world by donating to Cookies for Kids’ Cancer.


Cookies for Kids' Cancer

Q+A with Gretchen Witt

What was the initial spark that inspired Cookies for Kids’ Cancer?

The spark was my son Liam who was diagnosed with stage IV cancer in February 2007 when he was two and a half. Liam was a completely healthy and happy little boy and big brother to his sister Ella. I had made a well-child appointment for him with his pediatrician because my mommy instincts were telling me to get him checked out to make sure all was okay.

Chefs for Kids’ Cancer is now in its third year. How did the idea for the benefit come about?

I work in an industry where I’ve had the opportunity to meet quite a few chefs. After Liam was diagnosed, friends set up a meal delivery calendar and many times we would receive meals from local chefs. One of Liam’s passions in life was cooking. When most kids would be watching cartoons to pass the time in the hospital, Liam would be watching cooking shows. For him, cooking was a way of showing someone he cared about them. After Liam lost his four-year battle, we had a few chefs come to us and say we should think about having an event to raise money for research. We wanted to have an event that would truly showcase the community and their talents.

Chefs for Kids’ Cancer 2016 was an incredible event. How did you make the idea a reality?

I tend to be a person who believes that if you float something out to the universe with an open heart and from a position of goodness, as totally cheesy as this sounds, the world will catch you. I also think there is a little bit of Liam magic that has made something seemingly impossible, possible.

You worked with an acclaimed roster of chefs for the benefit. How did they come to be involved?

Chefs for Kids’ Cancer is about the chef community — this is really their event, which is why we have several chef chairs. We’ve been fortunate to have Chefs Dan Kluger, Jonathan Benno, Marc Forgione, James Kent and Marc Murphy as chef chairs.

Can you share the impact of this year’s gala and some of the changes to pediatric cancer you’ve been able to affect to date?

This year we reached a new fundraising level of $1.2 million. Since 2008, Cookies for Kids’ Cancer has funded 80 research projects, which have led to 30 treatments. And those treatments are what give families hope. I know because my son received several. In fact, the very first project Cookies for Kids’ Cancer helped to fund is one children are receiving today and one that became available seven months after Liam lost his battle.

What should people know about pediatric cancer?

They should know that it is the number one disease killer of children in the U.S. They should know that the cancers children are diagnosed with are different from adult cancers. They should know that kids are so resilient but go through nothing short of torture with the types of treatments available today. They should know there are researchers who basically are working with one hand tied behind their back because they are struggling for funding.

You’ve raised more than $10 million for the cause. Tell us a little about how you’ve been able to make such a tremendous impact.

The week Liam was diagnosed, I was asking one of his oncologists how I didn’t have any clue that childhood cancer is the number one disease killer of children in the U.S. His response was that no one cares…kids who get cancer don’t make headlines. Over his shoulder I could see a television announcement being made about a member of the White House staff who was diagnosed with cancer. In that moment, I thought it wasn’t that people didn’t care, it was that they didn’t know. With grassroots efforts, we truly are an organization that is of the people, by the people and for the people.

Your son Liam touched the lives of so many people. How has Liam changed you as a person?

Liam made me a better mommy and a better person. This little boy with a heart of gold and incredibly inquisitive mind had this very special ability to connect with people. And he continues to do so, which is something that makes me feel incredibly lucky to have been chosen to be his mommy.

How can people help make a difference?

Anyone can make a difference by getting involved, whether it’s hosting an event for Cookies for Kids’ Cancer (from a bake sale to a 5K run to dodgeball tournament), or sending someone cookies from our website that directs 100% of the profits to childhood cancer research.

Q+A with Chef Dan Kluger

What initially motivated you to get involved and become a chef co-chair for Chefs for Kids’ Cancer 2016?

I became friends with Gretchen and Larry through my wife and was incredibly moved by what they’d been through, how they wanted to help and what they’d already accomplished. Gretchen asked me to chair the initial Chefs for Kids’ event back in 2013 along with Jonathan Benno and it was such a rewarding experience. I knew moving forward I had to be a part of this event and organization on a greater level.

The event was powerful — and delicious. Tell us a little about the evening and what it entailed.

The concept for this event is a lot of fun. There are 20 chefs all serving 40 tables of 12. All chefs are cooking in the center of the room so people can see and chat with them, and each chef cooks for two tables. As everyone enjoys a great meal, they also get to hear from some of the top pediatric cancer surgeons in NYC, as well as learn about Cookies for Kids’ Cancer and how many lives they’ve helped save.

What was your role in getting such an impressive community of chefs to participate in the event?

To be honest, between Gretchen, Larry, Jonathan Benno and myself we have built a great group of chefs who consistently want to come back. And for those who can’t, they always lead us to someone new. This year having new co-chairs James Kent, Marc Murphy and Marc Forgione, we were so lucky to be able to fill the missing spots with incredible ease.

Tell us about the generosity of the chefs and how they contributed to the benefit.

I don’t have enough room to name them all, but everyone involved has been so generous with their personal time as well as that of their team and the cost of all of the products. It would almost be unfair to mention names as they have all been SO incredible, especially the pastry, a.k.a., cookie chefs! They bake and wrap hundreds and hundreds of cookies.

What is your food philosophy?

Simple is good, make it as delicious as possible, eat what’s in season as much as possible and give people something they want to eat!

What’s a go-to meal you prepare for your family at home?

Either roasted chicken (or pressure cooked with soy and ginger) or meatballs and spaghetti and some simple veggies…that’s the night I see the most smiling faces at the table.

Roasted Black Sea Bass with Cauliflower and Herb Vinaigrette

Chef Dan Kluger


Serves Four:

For the Lemon Infusion:
For the Roasted Cauliflower:
4 Cups Assorted Colored Cauliflower – Cut into small florets
1 Tbsp. California Olive Ranch Arbequinia Olive Oil
2 tsp. Kosher salt
As Needed Freshly ground black pepper

For the Cauliflower Puree:
4 Cups White Cauliflower – Core and Scraps
1 Ea. Spanish Onion – Peeled, cut in ½ and thinly sliced
1 Clove Garlic – Thinly sliced
1 Tbsp Kosher Salt
2 Tbsp California Olive Ranch Arbequinia Olive Oil
1/4 Cup Lemon Infusion

For the Herb Oil
3 Packed Cups Basil – Picked and washed
3 Packed Cups Parsley – Picked and washed
2 Packed Cups Chives – Washed and roughly chopped
1 Packed Cup Tarragon – Picked and washed
2 Gallons Water
2 Cups Kosher Salt
2 Cups California Olive Ranch Arbequinia Olive Oil

For the Vinaigrette:
1 Cup Lemon Infusion
1 Tbsp. Tabasco
2 Tbsp. Lemon Juice – Freshly squeezed
2 tsp. Organic Sugar
2 tsp. Kosher salt
1 Cup Herb Oil

For the Dish:
4 Filets Black Sea Bass – Pin bones removed and trimmed
As Needed Kosher Salt
As Needed Freshly Ground Black Pepper
2 Tbsp. California Olive Ranch Arbequinia Olive Oil
Roasted Cauliflower
Cauliflower Puree
8 oz. Vinaigrette
As Needed Coarse Sea Salt
1 Ea. Lemon – Microplaned

The Prep

  • For the Lemon Infusion:
    Bring water to a boil and pour over ingredients. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and allow to sit 30mins. Strain through a fine mesh strainer, pressing firmly on the solids for extraction. Reserve liquid.
  • For the Roasted Cauliflower:
    In a large sauté pan, heat the oil over high heat until almost smoking. Add the cauliflower and a half the salt. Allow the cauliflower to char lightly before tossing. Continue to cook tossing occasionally until tender and lightly charred all over. Season with remaining salt and reserve
  • For the Cauliflower Puree:
    Sweat the onion and garlic with salt over low heat until tender. Add the cauliflower and infusion and cover tightly and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes until tender. Remove lid and continue to cook until almost dry, strain reserving any liquid for later use. Purée until smooth in a blender adding reserved liquid if necessary. Hold in a warm place until ready to serve.
  • For the Herb Oil:
    Bring water and salt to a boil. Blanch herbs in small batches, shocking in ice as you go. Squeeze the herbs very dry in a clean lint-free kitchen towel. Combine herbs and oil and puree on high speed for about 3 minute. Remove to a boil set over ice and stir the oil until cool. Hang in a coffee filter or cheesecloth overnight.
  • For the Vinaigrette:
    Warm the infusion and then blend all of the remaining ingredients except the oil. With the blender running slowly add the oil until emulsified, reserve.
  • For the Dish:
    Season both sides of the fish with salt and pepper. In a large sauté pan, heat the oil over high heat. When the oil is almost smoking add the fish skin side down and turn the heat to medium. Let the fish cook for 1 minute before lightly pressing the fish flat with the back of a spatula. Cook on skin side for 4 minutes or until golden brown and the flesh is beginning to turn opaque at the edges. Then flip and remove the pan from the heat.
    In the center of 4 entrée bowls spoon 1 ½ oz of cauliflower puree and then top with cauliflower florets. Remove the fish from the pan and place on top of the cauliflower. Drizzle the vinaigrette around the bowl. Top the fish with lemon zest and a little sea salt.
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