Here's one "Top Chef"-style cooking contest that brings everything back to basics.
Supplied with only $15 worth of non-perishable foods -- nothing that needs refrigeration -- the annual Key West Top Shelf Chef Cooking Contest challenges local chefs to whip up delectable meals by using staples of a food pantry.
Evaporated milk, canned vegetables and meats, boxed pastas are welcome. Eggs, milk, fish and steaks are off the menu.
While the list of dry goods may not make a highfalutin foodie's shortlist of ingredients, over the past few years the contest has yielded an enviable corn chowder, hearty pasta dishes and even a candied Spam, organizers said.
"I taste it all every year," said Stephanie Kaple of Florida Keys Outreach Coalition (FKOC) for the Homeless. "Some of it is awesome."
While the event, in its fourth year, is billed as a budget-friendly mini-movable feast, the nonprofit behind it wants to raise awareness of the daily struggle against hunger and poverty.
"It's a challenge people face every day," said Kaple, the women's case manager for FKOC. "There are people struggling day to day to get from one spot to another -- with rent, the electric bill and to provide food. It's something a lot of people can relate to, cooking on a budget."
Kaple came up with the idea for a food pantry-themed "Top Chef" type of contest four years ago while driving to work, listening to reports of a fancy local chef contest on the radio.
The cooking contest is scheduled for 5 to 8 p.m. July 27 at the BottleCap Lounge, 1128 Simonton St.
Admission, entering the contest and tasting are all free. But the event is intended to raise money to feed needy Monroe County residents through the Loaves & Fish Food Pantry at Florida Keys Outreach Coalition for the Homeless.
Guests can vote for their favorite dishes by tipping out the individual chefs. Each buck equals one vote, and the highest tally will be the People's Choice chef.
A panel of judges will also weigh in, naming the Key West Top Shelf Chef.
Pantry need rises
FKOC's food pantry, behind the William Neece Center for Homeless Recovery, 2221 Patterson Ave., opened in November 2000.
It's one of several programs run by the nonprofit, whose leaders readily admit it is not competing with the Star of the Sea Outreach Mission on Stock Island, which is a huge food pantry with its own refrigeration and a few trucks for hauling in food.
But the need in Key West continues to keep the FKOC's pantry busy.
Since January, FKOC's Loaves & Fish pantry has served 1,719 meals to 341 people, including 67 children, according to Chris Welts, house manager at the Neece Center.
People need vouchers for the pantry, which are available from social services and nonprofits such as the Guidance/Care Center, but no one has to provide identification. Pantry clients are not tracked by name.
The vouchers are needed in order to account to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Welts.
The pantry also accepts and distributes shampoo, conditioner, soap, deodorant, diapers and baby food.
Chief patrons of the pantry are the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the United Way and Episcopal Churches of Southeast Florida. But annual drives by the U.S. Postal Service and the Coast Guard and Navy keep the pantry stocked.
"The generosity of people in Key West is overwhelming," said Welts, recalling a local woman who stopped by unannounced with 150 boxes of cereal.
The need hasn't slowed down, a fact reflected by the change in how often clients may visit the pantry.
"It used to be every six months," Welts said of the pantry's availability. "Now it's every two to three months."