Serving Compassion
At the eighth annual Great Chefs Event, Marc Vetri and the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation combine forces for a common cause
by Jocelyn Murray

Alexandra Scott has been changing the face of childhood cancer, even after her passing in 2004. Her self-started organization, Alex’s Lemonade Stand, continues to raise countless dollars annually—to date, more than $50 million—to fund research projects in the fight against pediatric cancer, the very disease that took her life at the tender age of 8.

Originally from Connecticut, Alex moved to the Philadelphia area with her family to be closer to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Her cause bloomed here, raising money for children who were fighting along with her. Some of Philadelphia’s most prominent businesspeople—including Marc Vetri, the Abington-born chef who has become one of Philadelphia’s most influential restaurateurs—have since joined the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF) to help find a cure for pediatric cancer. For eight years now, the Vetri Foundation for Children and ALSF have linked arms every spring to host the Great Chefs Event—this year’s will be held on June 11 at Urban Outfitters’ headquarters at the Navy Yard—to raise money and awareness for the cause.

Liz and Jay Scott, Alex’s parents, were introduced to Marc Vetri and his business partner, Jeff Benjamin, just before what would have been Alex’s 10th birthday. From their first meeting it was apparent that the two sides should combine resources to fight for the same cause. From there sprouted the first Great Chefs Event, which consisted of just six local chefs and a small number of attendees. In comparison, this year’s is expected to draw more than more than 40 premier chefs and 1,200 attendees.

“The first one was all local chefs, like José Garces, most of whom still attend,” says Liz Scott, ALSF co-executive director. “Since then they have become the culinary gurus of Philadelphia. It was really similar to how Alex’s was simple and modest the first year, but we had this big vision of what this could become and really wanted to grow it.”

Adds Benjamin: “Jay and Liz kind of felt like we were only scratching the surface. … We could just be a nonprofit with a name only or we could take it seriously and do it for real, so we put together a board of directors and got a group of like-minded people who all bring different things to the table.”

From there, Vetri and Benjamin formed the Vetri Foundation for Children, which promotes healthy lifestyles for children. They did so not only to work with ALSF but also to expand their own philanthropic efforts elsewhere.

“We wanted to continue to do Alex’s,” explains Benjamin, now an ALSF board member, “but we knew there were other things we can do charitably, and now we have a better known name than when we started. So we want to help children lead a healthier lifestyle and protect the future generation to last longer than their parents.

“Both charities are supporting children, and we both have a vested interest in creating a healthy life for children,” he continues. “A healthy lifestyle and healthy eating go hand in hand with making sure kids don’t get sick, even though there’s nothing that prevents cancer from a dietary standpoint. The next generation needs to have a healthier lifestyle and have an opportunity we don’t have.”

Over the Great Chefs Event’s first eight years, the two organizations have used their natural similarities to draw attention and awareness to the importance of not only the event but also of how closely the two causes are tied.

“The whole idea of ‘one cup at a time’ that Alex’s is founded on resonates through the Vetri organization and the for-profit side,” Benjamin says. “We treat every new guest as if they have been coming forever; we treat them as friends. By ‘one guest at a time,’ we are making this a success, and that permeates through the whole Vetri family organization.”

Adds Scott: “All of us are so passionate about children and helping children. Our passion for [fighting] childhood cancer is matched by their passion for healthy eating for kids and seeing how that can change a kid’s life. It’s unbelievable how much they’ve given of themselves, their business and their network and friends to help us succeed the way we have.”

In addition to Vetri and Benjamin’s nonprofit work, on every check at each restaurant in the Vetri Group is a notice that encourages guests to donate to the organization. The notice explains that every amount donated will be equally matched by the restaurant group.

“It is not just about showing up; it’s about touching people’s lives,” Benjamin says. “It is just a natural extension of the entire family.”

‘A Premier Event’
With the combination of the two organizations, the Great Chefs Event has evolved, as Chef Garces puts it, into “a premier A-List event” in Philadelphia. Having other nationally known chefs such as Garces participating only strengthens the message and builds awareness.

“I met Marc when I first moved to Philly in 2001,” says Garces, who owns a number of Philadelphia’s best-known restaurants, including Amada and Distrito. “When I opened [Amada], he used to come in for dinner and I’d see him in the lounge and we would start chatting and became friends. … It’s been so exciting to see what Marc and the Vetri folks have done with the event. It’s been inspirational and I saw it grow from a handful of local chefs to this great A-list of amazing culinary talents.”

At the event, chefs from across the country and around the world come in to create exclusive dishes for attendees. The culinary delights are accompanied by delicious drinks and plenty of opportunities for socializing.

“There’s an energy that’s pretty unmatched, between all these great chefs that come,” Garces adds. “All the folks that are coming to support this cause, it’s an amazing feeling of giving and hope.”

The Scotts, who have such an intimate connection to the night, feel an immeasurable amount of emotion seeing all of these people come together to support a cause begun by their late daughter.

“They really just want to do something good,” says Scott. “They believe in helping kids with cancer so passionately, it’s pretty amazing. They don’t have the exact personal connection that we have but they get it. Knowing that they have been a part of it and helped it grow works for them.”

Having Philly as the backdrop, and its people as the event’s primary supporters, makes it that more special for all involved.

“The best thing about it is that from a city standpoint is that it becomes infectious,” says Benjamin. “People can call the Vetri family and ask can them to help out; it could be a gift card, monetary donation or cooking for an event. … This is the City of Brotherly Love, so this city should be the most philanthropic city in the country. At times it really is.”

For the Scotts, the fact that their daughter started this tremendous organization that has spread so far and touched the lives of so many is humbling and heartwarming. They see firsthand the progress and the passion behind every dish served.

“It is a mix of incredible gratitude,” says Scott. “I can’t express to everybody involved how appreciative and hopeful we are. It feels like, ‘Wow, with all these people we are going to solve this problem, and we are going to fix this.’”

For Benjamin, Vetri and the other chefs and businesses involved, participating in a night such as the Great Chefs Event only strengthens their belief that the cause goes beyond the kitchen in an effort to change the lives of others.

“Looking back and thinking about what impact you had,” says Benjamin, “no one is going to say, ‘Jeff can open a bottle of wine well, but he made it easier for children to lead a healthy lifestyle.’ What I learned from Alex’s is that if you do something—anything—to make this world a better place you are a much better person for it.”