Call it the Minimal Regatta of food.
At 5 p.m. Friday, the Keys' most creative chefs will congregate at the BottleCap Lounge to create dishes using only the limited items available at local food pantries.
"It's our most eclectic fundraiser of the year," said Florida Keys Outreach Coalition President and CEO, the Rev. Stephen Braddock. "And it's certainly the most fun. But it's also for a good cause. Lately, our Loaves and Fishes Food Pantries are seeing a much greater demand from families. The homeless usually go to soup kitchens to eat. Most of the people accessing food pantries are the working poor."
Outreach Coalition Supportive Services Director Stephanie Kaple agreed.
"Right now, 950,000 people in South Florida are food insecure," she said. "And for those without transportation, just getting to a food pantry itself can be difficult."
To the rescue comes the Fifth Annual Key West Top Shelf Chef Cooking Contest, created as a way to raise awareness of the difficulty of preparing balanced, appealing meals from the nonperishable items stocked at food pantries.
In a nutshell, participating chefs create an original dish that can feed four to six people, using just $15 worth of nonperishable ingredients. The ingredients must have a shelf life of at least one year and cannot require refrigeration. Seasonings and other kitchen staples, such as cooking oil and baking soda/powder, don't count against the $15.
Once prepared, the dish is brought to the bar, where a panel of judges, and the public, will pick a Judge's Choice Award, and a People's Choice Award.
Organizers are still seeking both chefs and tasters, who will vote with their wallets, at a rate of $1 per point.
Prizes include groovy homemade trophies, and, for the big winners, $25 gift certificates for The Restaurant Store. The contest is free to enter.
"We do it both to challenge people to be creative with their cooking skills, and also to raise awareness about how difficult it can be to live on the kind of nonperishable foods found in a food pantry," Kaple said. "Also, oftentimes donations to the pantries tend to be food that's sort of leftover. It's a way of getting people to ask themselves if they're donating items that people need, as opposed to things they don't need."
As tricky as the culinary challenge can be, plenty of people have risen to the challenge over the years, Kaple said.
Dishes that have won in the past include candied spam, and squid with spaghetti.
"Canned squid," Braddock emphasized.
The event will also feature a number of celebrity bartenders and judges, including Braddock himself, who will be pouring drinks for thirsty patrons.
The fundraiser is being held simultaneously with a promotion at the Square One-New American Table restaurant in Duval Square, where 20 percent of patrons' bills will be donated to the coalition upon mention of FKOC. Reservations are strongly suggested. To RSVP, call 305-296-4300.
The Top Shelf competition dovetails nicely with an upcoming FKOC project: expanding both the Patterson Avenue and Center Street Loaves and Fishes pantries.
"We can always use donations of nonperishable foods, personal hygiene items, and, of course, cash," Braddock said.
For more information on the Top Shelf Chef Cooking Contest, call 305-731-3038 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.