A Conversation With John Kowalenko

John Kowalenko.

John Kowalenko, who owns the Art of Eating Catering company with his wife, Cheryl Stair, has picked up where he left off about 10 years ago by organizing another “Ladles of Love” fundraiser for local food pantries. He spoke to The Sag Harbor Express about the event and the larger issue of hunger in the Hamptons.

How pervasive is the problem of hunger here?

It’s a combination of things. It’s the time of year. There’s not a lot of work. Once the season comes, there’s less of a need, but right now people are not working. People from the pool companies and the restaurants and the service companies who support this community in season are all struggling right now. You’ll get a combination of people coming into the food pantry. It could be a friend you don’t realize is struggling, or a retired veteran or a senior citizen. We get a lot of senior citizens coming in by bus. We’re trying to get people and families enough food to last a week to help them out. It’s amazing how many kids come down with their parents. I get emotional talking about this stuff.

How did you conceive the “Ladles of Love” event?

Let’s go back maybe 10 years ago, when we were not as involved with the food pantries as we are now. I knew that they were in desperate need. I just kept hearing about how much need there was because we were working with Island Harvest and delivering food. At the time we had the diner in Amagansett. We put together an event in January. I was out with a friend of mine, Enzo Morabito, and his wife Cathy. I wanted to do an event with soups and stews to feed everybody. I wanted to call it “Ladles” something. Kathy said why not “Ladles of Love?” Two snowstorms came through that week, but we ended up with about 300 people coming down. We had five local bands, 22 local restaurants. Everyone was doing stews and soups and chili. It was extremely successful. We raised $7,000. We gave money to 10 food pantries and brought in about 1,200 pounds of food. It was nice and warm under the tent, you wouldn’t even have known you were outside. It was food-driven with the goal in mind of bringing awareness to the food pantries.

Is this the start of an annual Ladles of Love?

This is kind of the beginning of bringing it back. It’s a simplified version of it at The Stephen Talkhouse.

What do the food pantries need?

The demand on the food pantries is increasing and the budgets are not increasing as rapidly. We had a shortfall this year because one of our big donors passed away and our winter appeal fell short. [Food pantry director] Vicki Littman said, ‘Why don’t you do the ‘Ladles of Love’ again?’ And we said ‘Yup, we’ll do it.’ There’s a lot of behind the scenes coordination that people don’t realize, but a lot of people behind the scenes are helping. We really lucked out because the Montauk Beach House really stepped up and gave us a $2,500 donation, which is paying for a lot of the operating expenses for the event and we’re very grateful for that. [Stephen Talkhouse owner] Peter Honerkamp donated the Talkhouse for that evening. It’s been a very good, supportive journey to reestablish awareness of the fact that there is hunger in the Hamptons.

“Ladles of Love,” a benefit for the East Hampton and Amagansett food pantries, is set for Friday, March 29, from 7 to 11 p.m. at the Stephen Talkhouse on Main Street in Amagansett. The goal is to raise $40,000 to cover a budget shortfall, according to a press release. Sponsored by the Montauk Beach House and Sound Aircraft Services, among others, the event will feature five bands, a silent auction, a 50/50 raffle and the first-ever “Supervisor’s Jam” — featuring music performed by East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc’s band, Supe du Jour, and the Southampton Town supervisor’s band, “Jay Schneiderman and Friends.” Tickets are $35 and can be purchased by calling the East Hampton Food Pantry at (631) 324-2300.