December 9, 2011 10:13 pm

The most generous helpings

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Food, wine and philanthropy: when three worlds collide

The restaurant and wine worlds are full of debate and discussion, but there is one aspect of both – their generosity – that is rarely talked about. The 151st Hospices de Beaune wine auction, for instance, organised in Burgundy in late November by Anthony Hanson MW of Christie’s, raised more than €5m for the Hospices’ charitable beneficiaries.

Another generous helping is served by Street Smart, created by Nick Emley in 1998, whereby over 500 restaurateurs across the UK add £1 to every bill during November and December. So far, they have raised more than £5m for the homeless.

And this weekend marks the last chance to bid for lunch with a leading FT writer at one of 25 restaurants around the world: the proceeds go to Sightsavers, this year’s FT Christmas charity.

The huge impact that good wine and food can have on a fundraising event will be appreciated by anyone who has been involved in one. The wine, of course, has a particular ability to persuade guests not just to reach for their wallets but also, on many occasions, to open them far more generously than they may originally have intended.

Like restaurateurs, wine merchants find their heartstrings pulled in many worthwhile directions. When I asked Willie Lebus of Bibendum Wine to quiz his colleagues on how often they were asked to donate wine for a charitable cause, his immediate response was “almost daily”. Over the years, Lebus continued, they have concentrated on specific charities – at present it is the MS Society, for which he reckons they have raised over £100,000 in three years. He himself had just been auctioned for £1,600, to conduct a wine tasting for 30 people in aid of Hope for Youth.

A similar approach is taken at Bibendum’s rival Liberty Wines. Its MD, David Gleave, decided at the opening of Fifteen, Jamie Oliver’s restaurant – which was swiftly followed by the creation of the Jamie Oliver Foundation – to lend both enterprises a specific helping hand.

“Every year we take several of the cooks and waiting staff from their restaurants in Cornwall and London to visit our suppliers in Italy,” he explained. “Over the years I’ve seen some of these kids go from being previously unemployed, with no experience of travel outside the UK, to cooking in restaurants in Italy and even in some of London’s best kitchens. Such transformations have been amazing to watch.”

cooking for Leuka

Cooking for Leuka

While more formal restaurants are adding a pound to their bills, the Pret a Manger sandwich chain is donating 25p to the homeless for every Christmas sandwich sold. It has already raised close to £40,000 this year. In New York, meanwhile, SOS – Share Our Strength – has been harnessing the generosity of American restaurateurs and chefs since the 1980s to raise funds to end childhood hunger at home and abroad.

The challenge in all such campaigns, however, is to find that irresistible charity auction lot – the one “that money cannot buy”. That has become a particularly tough quest in London since Chris Corbin created the annual “Who’s Cooking Dinner?” event in 1999.

On a Monday in early March every year, 20 top chefs prepare dinner for 20 tables of 10, after which the chefs are auctioned to cook at the highest bidder’s home. Corbin, who opened The Wolesley after overcoming leukaemia, has seen this initiative raise £3.7m for Leuka.

My own fundraising efforts have ranged from putting on a lunch for the fire-damaged Tricycle Theatre, to cooking for chefs and restaurateurs in aid of Action Against Hunger, to offering dinner for six in our home as an auction prize. But perhaps the greatest excitement has come from being a small part of the wine dinners across the globe that have raised more than $15m, over the past eight years, for Room to Read.

That grapes grown in France, Germany, Italy, South Africa and the US can produce a drink so special that it can help young children go to school in Asia and India is extraordinary. This is a great tribute to good wine, to good food and, most significantly, to all that they can collectively achieve for good causes.

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