June 23, 2010 16:05 Age: 4 yrs

Top Chef Honors

By: Liz Chilla

Ronald McDonald House families benefit from first-year cooking contest

Team Softness shows off its gourmet pizzas. Members include: Alexandra Kraus 12L (from left), Melissa Softness 12L, Craig Runyon 12L, Rachel Kaufman 12L, Matthew Emanuel 12L, Adam Sinton 12L and Aaron Siegel 12L. Top Chef Contest organizer Ben Katz 12L (fourth photo) is a regular volunteer at Emory’s Ronald McDonald House.

A group of first-year Emory Law students tested their cooking skills when they volunteered to prepare meals for children and families staying at the Atlanta Ronald McDonald House in February. The event was organized by Ben Katz 12L, a regular volunteer with the organization.

The Ronald McDonald House, near Emory’s campus, is a residential facility for families with children receiving medical treatment in one of Atlanta’s hospitals. Katz became involved with the organization after heeding the advice of Professor Jim Elliot 63C 66L to “stay involved in things outside of law school” and not devote his life to just being a practicing attorney.

“I look for opportunities to get involved with something outside law school. A couple weeks before law school, I was riding my bike around Lullwater Park and rode up to the house,” Katz says. “I went inside, met the volunteer coordinator and applied for a position. Now I’m a volunteer there once a week.

“I thought it would be a good idea to get Emory students into the house to see what they do,” he says. “When you get to law school you get caught up in 1L life and studying, and you lose touch with the real world. I had this opportunity to volunteer at the house, and I wanted other students to get in there.”

KATZ PITCHED THE DINNER IDEA TO FOUR FRIENDS. Suddenly, there was a group of law students ready to help.

“I was thinking, how am I going to find enough people willing to do this,” says Melissa Softness 12l, “but the first people I asked said yes. So many people wanted to do it, and I was worried about not having enough.”

“We had an overwhelming amount of students. I had to turn people away,” Katz says. “They don’t allow more than 14 people in the kitchen at one time to prepare a meal, so only a limited the number of students could participate.”

Eventually, they decided on four teams of seven to cook over two nights.

“Many of my friends are accomplished chefs and have plenty of tricks up their sleeves, so our team filled up quickly,” says Ruth Dawson 12L, one of the team leaders.

“Ben knows I love to cook, and I was happy to accept the opportunity to cook for charity with my friends,” Gabrielle Mercadante 12L says.

Meals ranged from a traditional Southern dinner—complete with fried chicken, collard greens andblueberry cobbler—to pizza, spaghetti and tacos.

“We were afraid it was a bit ambitious, especially since the fried chicken was a first attempt,” says Dawson of her team’s meal, “but, we got rave reviews.”

“One of the teams made pudding cups for dessert with Oreos and gummi worms,” Katz says. The kids loved it.”

“I think all of us really enjoyed the fact that we were able to cook a meal that the kids and families would not have every day,” says Winston Gu 12L, whose team created a Mexican-themed dinner. “I always like to see the smile on people’s faces after they’ve had something amazing to eat.”

Mercadante agrees. “Being able to share my love for food with the children and their families at the house was very rewarding.”

Although the children did not participate in the cooking, “we did have a very curious 2-year-old girl come and supervise us for a while,” Dawson says. “We could tell she had been staying at the house for some time
and was the queen of the kitchen.”

THE STUDENTS ORGANIZED THE DINNERS, sponsored by the Emory Law Food Club, as a Top Chef-style competition.

Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Katherine Brokaw participated as a judge for one of the night’s competitions. Though, as Katz explains, it was difficult to declare a winner.

"All four teams worked so hard, a lot harder than I imagined, that I just couldn’t choose,” he says.

The students hope to continue the dinners at the Ronald McDonald House, and other Emory Law student organizations have offered to sponsor future outings.

“I was so proud of our law students for initiating and implementing this volunteer project,” Brokaw says. “The law school encourages students to reach out to our community. Ronald McDonald House is a beautiful facility, and I hope our students will continue volunteering there.”

“Having the opportunity to make something tasty and memorable for the families is something I would love to do again,” Gu says.

“People [at the house] were still talking about the dinner,” Katz says. “The energy the Emory students brought was new to the families.”

“Cooking for the Ronald McDonald House reconnected us stressed out 1Ls with service and the community,” Dawson says. “We were laughing and working together, solely focused on making good food for families under the much more real stress of caring for an ill child.”


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