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Jane Punzal, of San Marcos restaurant Litchi and Mary, prepares small plates of Filipino pork belly on Sunday at the Hilton Del Mar during the 25th annual Meet the Chefs event benefiting Casa de Amparo.
Jane Punzal, of San Marcos restaurant Litchi and Mary, prepares small plates of Filipino pork belly on Sunday at the Hilton Del Mar during the 25th annual Meet the Chefs event benefiting Casa de Amparo. Photo by Laura Place
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Meet the Chefs fundraiser spotlights local chefs, foster youth

DEL MAR — Eighteen of northern San Diego County’s best chefs brought an array of delicacies including gumbo, ceviche, barbecue and more to the Hilton Del Mar on Sunday afternoon to benefit nonprofit Casa de Amparo in their fight against child abuse and neglect.

The annual Meet the Chefs event, currently in its 25th year, raises around $125,000 to fund crucial programs for foster youth and young adults in Casa de Amparo’s programs. The nonprofit offers a short-term residential therapeutic program, a residential campus called Casa Kids in Oceanside, and transitional housing program New Directions for recently emancipated individuals ages 18 to 25.

After being canceled in both 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 precautions, the poolside fundraising event returned with hundreds of auction items ranging from wine, dinners for two and overnight getaways, a VIP reception for top donors, and the main event — food from a variety of local restaurants waiting to be sampled.

“This event raises much-needed funds for the work that Casa de Amparo does,” said nonprofit CEO Michael Barnett, noting that the pandemic made fundraising more difficult in recent years. “We found that over half of foster youth became homeless in the first year of turning 18. Once they’re 18 … there’s no support for them. What Casa de Amparo does is try to give them hope.”

Golden Door's Executive Chef Greg Frey Jr. prepares plates of seafood for guests at the 25th annual Meet the Chefs fundraiser on Sunday at the Hilton Del Mar.
Golden Door’s Executive Chef Greg Frey Jr. prepares plates of seafood for guests at the 25th annual Meet the Chefs fundraiser on Sunday at the Hilton Del Mar. Photo by Laura Place

Private chefs, longtime restaurant owners and founders of new eateries offered small plates of food to attendees, all eager to get the word out about their business while also contributing to Casa de Amparo’s cause.

Jane Puntazal and Edmundo Batuigas worked quickly to serve plates of traditional Filipino pork belly to guests, giving them a taste of the cuisine served at their San Marcos restaurant Lutchi and Mary.

Batuigas said it was the first time they had been invited to Meet the Chefs.

“It’s exciting — it’s a big break for us,” he said.

Another chef at the event, Golden Door Luxury Resort and Spa executive chef Greg Frey Jr., said their San Marcos business has worked with Casa for nearly a decade. While they are not a typical restaurant open to the public, Frey said they donate leftover food like bread and oranges from their country store and farmstand to participants in Casa programs and also offer financial support.

Denise Randazzo, a chef at Oceanside Mexican restaurant Valle, speaks with a guest at the 25th annual Meet the Chefs fundraiser on Sunday at the Hilton Del Mar
Denise Randazzo, a chef at Oceanside Mexican restaurant Valle, speaks with a guest at the 25th annual Meet the Chefs fundraiser on Sunday at the Hilton Del Mar. Photo by Laura Place

“Our neighborhood is our community. We’ve been fortunate to provide some support,” Frey said. There are times when we’ve got an abundance [of food] not sellable from a retail perspective, but still very good to eat.”

Also present alongside eateries like Dolce Pane E Vino in Rancho Santa Fe and Valle restaurant in Oceanside were chefs from Casa de Amparo’s Kitchen, who cook three meals a day for youth participating in the nonprofit’s residential programs.

Chef Priscilla Mendez said they generally serve between 40 and 50 youth and teens each day depending on enrollment and have to communicate with them about their likes and dislikes to ensure they have a good experience with the food.

“The kids come from a lot of trauma, and there’s a lot of food trauma. I have to kind of build that relationship with them, and I had to use my “mom experience” with cooking for my kids, to listen to what they did and didn’t like about it,” Mendez said. “It’s not just cooking for them, it’s understanding where they come from, too.”

Casa de Amparo is also in the process of jump-starting a new facility, the 16-bedroom Teen Wellness Center adjoining the Casa Kids campus, with a $14 million fundraising goal.

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