By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published Dec 20, 2012 at 8:55 AM

Nell Benton, owner and chef for The National Café, met Thi Cao of Buckley's Kiskeam Inn about a year and a half ago. Originally, she was looking to start a group for area chefs to share resources, talk about options for group healthcare and make connections in the city. Little did she know the connection would blossom into a friendship and a much deeper collaborative effort.

Beginning last summer, the two chefs started discussing ways that they could bring together the culinary community in Milwaukee to benefit the wider community. Benefit dinners were at the top of the list, so they began discussing ways to make one happen.

"I've been doing chefs dinners for quite some time," Cao explains. "I liked the idea of bringing a group of chefs together to cook whatever we wanted, to spend time together and really make a difference."

So, that's what he did. The result was a charity dinner in October that brought together five Milwaukee chefs to honor long-time Grenadier's chef Knut Apitz and raise money for the Wisconsin Parkinson's Association. Participants included Paul Zerkel of Butcher, Baker; Gil Petrovic of Hi-Hat Lounge; Thi Cao of Buckley's; Justin Aprahamian of Sanford; and Nell Benton of The National Café. The chefs called the dinner "Nasty Bits" and served up course after creative course made from a wide variety of offal.

"We had no idea how the dinner would go," remarks Benton, "but it was a great success. We helped one another to plate our courses and worked together really well in Buckley's tiny kitchen."

Both Benton and Cao were so pleased with the collaboration that they decided to begin holding similar dinners on a regular basis. And so, Milwaukee – Food For Thought was born.

As their Facebook page professes, "We are a dynamic group of Milwaukee chefs who care about our community, and would like to use our skills to help promote, raise awareness of, and funds for, socially minded organizations within Milwaukee."

Dinners are likely to be held on a quarterly basis and will consist of multiple themed courses, each created by a different chef. Destinations and participating chefs for the dinners will vary from event to event. But, a common community thread will endure. All participating chefs, sommeliers, beer experts and staff will donate their time during the event. And all proceeds, after food costs are covered, will be donated to a carefully selected community organization.

"Some items will be donated," Cao explains, "so we'll keep costs down as much as possible. We're currently working with a number of vendors who are interested in donating food and wine."

Attendees will be able to show their appreciation for staff efforts by tipping generously, as gratuities will be divided among participating chefs and staff.

"We've had a lot of interest among chefs who've asked to be involved," Benton reports, indicating that the group plans to create a roster of interested participants who will be eligible to donate their time to future events.

"There are so many young, eager, dynamic chefs in Milwaukee who want to work together," Cao confirms, "and we'll be looking seriously at collaborating with working chefs, like myself, who are involved with the day-in, day-out operations at their restaurants."

Milwaukee – Food For Thought will hold its first dinner Monday, Jan. 21, 2013 at The National Café. The theme for the event will be Nursery Rhymes, with courses inspired by classic tales and rhymes like "The Three Little Pigs," "Mary Had a Little Lamb," "Sing a Song of Sixpence" and "Rub-a-Dub-Dub Three Men in a Tub."

Proceeds will support Joy House, a resource program for homeless women and children operated by the Milwaukee Rescue Mission. Order tickets online here.

Chefs and vendors interested in getting involved with the events should contact Nell Benton at mkefft@gmail.com.

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.