May 18, 2024
Features | Herald-News

Features | Herald-News

After 21 years, Joliet chef still coordinating tasting event to aid those with disabilities

Annual tasting and auction event benefits Center for Disability Services in Joliet

Chef Fred Ferrara watches over his students Wednesday in the Vocational Skills Food Service Partnership classes as they prepare several dishes for a meal at Joliet Junior College in Joliet.

JOLIET – It makes him feel good.

That, plain and simple, is why Fred Ferrara still is coordinating the Great Chefs Tasting Party and Auction, to be held Feb. 28 this year. He began 21 years ago for the Center for Disability Services, formerly known as UCP of Illinois Prairieland.

The Joliet Junior College chef doesn’t mind the hours it takes encouraging other chefs to participate – the event has about 10 stations so far – or overseeing two stations himself: the JJC Epicurean Club, and students from the Vocational Skills Food Service Partnership program at JJC.

And that’s in addition to literally being part of the auctions, as a “chef in the home dinner party” who joins the other items in the bidding war.

“I come with some of my students, and we do a sit-down dinner or an hors d’oeuvres and beer pairing dinner with them,” Ferrara said.

Instead, Ferrara points to the successes: the center’s former clients who attend the event as volunteers, and graduates from JJC’s culinary arts program who work stations because it makes them feel good.

As much as Ferrara loves teaching, he said the Great Chefs Tasting Party and Auction is “the fun part of my job.”

But this year, Jennifer Gabrenya, president and CEO for the Center for Disability Services, hopes the tasting party raises serious money, because proceeds from the fundraiser have declined in the past few years.

In 2010, that amount was $100,000, according to Gabrenya, but it has dipped, with the 2015 event only bringing in $53,000. A good number for 2016, Gabrenya said, is $80,000.

Gabrenya said the Center for Disability Services is funded through Medicaid waiver funding, and that funding has not increased in 10 years, so the organization relies on fundraisers. The Great Chefs Tasting Party and Auction is the biggest, she added.

In addition to a “Viva Las Vegas” theme to enhance the party atmosphere, guests will sample bits of phenomenal food they won’t find elsewhere.

“They’re created just for our event,” Gabrenya said. “You won’t find them in a restaurant.”

Ferrara said that when he was teaching in Florida before he came to JJC, a chapter of the American Culinary Federation held a similar event as a fundraiser for United Cerebral Palsy, in which Ferrara participated.

When he came to Joliet, Ferrara said he approached UCP and offered to coordinate a similar event, as a way to bring chefs together, whether or not they belonged to the American Culinary Federation.

Ferrara said the first event attracted about 12 stations and 160 people. The tasting party continued to grow – up to 500 guests some years, Ferrara said.

“People like to take part in things that support worthy causes,” Ferrara said. “And I think the grazing is more of a social atmosphere, where they can mingle and talk with people as they move through the lines.”

Ferrara’s family also has championed the cause through the years. His wife, Stephanie, designs a special event patch that participating chefs wear on their jackets. Stephanie, along with their grown daughters, Spring Ferrara of Joliet and Summer Kornfind (now with husband, Kenneth) of Chicago, work the tables, clean and do anything that needs to be done, Ferrara said.

“They have been coming and helping me since they were in grade school,” Ferrara said of his daughters.



So far, the following are participating in the 21st annual Great Chefs Tasting Party and Auction:

• Big Fish Grille & Morris Chop Shop – Sweet potato gnocchi and kung pao octopus; Asian sticky rib banh mi

• Bolingbrook Golf Club and Bar & Grill – Bo Jackson’s pork shanks with The Nest sauce (pork shanks tossed in sauce, and served with coleslaw and blue cheese dressing)

• Cheesecakes by James – assorted cheesecake bites

• Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants – 1-ounce samples of six different wines

• Flavors Buffet – house-smoked barbecue pork ribs with house barbecue sauce, bacon and jalapeno macaroni and cheese, French silk shooters

• Giovan’s Restaurant & Pizzeria – cannoli, martini and jazz martini

• Joliet Junior College Epicurean Club – Gordon Ramsay’s aloo tilda (griddled spinach and potato cake with cucumber raita)

• Kozol Bros. Inc. – Beer and beverage sampling

• Stone City Saloon – Habanera pulled pork sliders

• The Jacob Henry Mansion Estate – Jambalaya

• VSFS Partnership Program at Joliet Junior College – Bobby Flay’s mesa grill (stacked flour or corn tortillas filled with wild mushrooms, ancho chile, spices, cotija and red chile jack cheese).



WHAT: 21st annual Great Chefs Tasting Party and Auction

WHEN: 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Feb. 28

WHERE: Bolingbrook Golf Club, 2001 Rodeo Drive, Bolingbrook

TICKETS: $95, available at

INFO: 815-744-3500

ETC: Pam Heavens of the Will-Grundy Center for Independent Living is the 2016 recipient of the Chef Fred Ferrara Award for her outstanding service, advocacy and volunteerism in the community to benefit people with disabilities.

Denise  Unland

Denise M. Baran-Unland

Denise M. Baran-Unland is the features editor for The Herald-News in Joliet. She covers a variety of human interest stories. She also writes the long-time weekly tribute feature “An Extraordinary Life about local people who have died. She studied journalism at the College of St. Francis in Joliet, now the University of St. Francis.