L to R: Armen Martirosyan (Mini Kabob);Armen Ayvazyan (Chi Spacca); Anthony Castro (Redbird | Vibiana); Tobin Shea (Redbird | Vibiana); Vartan Abgaryan (Momed); James Saidy (Rossoblu); Steve Samson (Rossoblu);Not pictured: Dina Samson (Rossoblu), Sasha Piligian

NEW YORK — This fall, AGBU and World Central Kitchen (WCK) were working around the clock across seven regions of Armenia to prepare and distribute warm meals and food packages to tens of thousands of forcibly displaced Armenians from Artsakh. Little did they know that, across the world, five celebrity chefs in Los Angeles were huddled in the kitchen of the Rossoblu restaurant to help keep the AGBUxWCK food security operation going strong.

The effort is part of the “Chefs for Armenia” campaign, a new concept in fundraising that pairs fine dining experiences with humanitarian causes. The brand and the model are the brainchild of Armenian American restaurant marketing and brand developer Alexis Halejian and Chef Vartan Abgaryan. Halejian is also an AGBU program alumna by way of AGBU Camp Nubar in New York State, where she was born and raised before relocating to LA.

On November 6, 115 guests assembled at the toney five-star LA restaurant Rossoblu, where big name chefs associated with celebrated local dining venues gathered together to cook for a cause. This included Vartan Abgaryan of Momed; Armen Ayvazyan of Chi Spacca; Armenian Martirosyan of Mini Kabob; and the pastry phenomenon Sasha Piligian. Steve and Dina Samson, co-owners of Rossoblu, donated their magnificent dining space and kitchen for each chef to prepare one dish for one of the five courses. The menu was curated as a group collaboration, creating an eclectic menu of Armenian and other international favorites compatible with the discerning palate.

Upon their arrival, guests were treated to an Ararat Brandy Welcome Cocktail created by Tobin Shea, the acclaimed bar director of Redbird | Vibiana, who has visited Armenia as a result of the global popularity of Armenian brandy. He fell in love with the country and its people and said a few words to the audience about his appreciation for Armenia and shared his rarified knowledge of the product. On this occasion, it was paired with a Welcome Bite by Zhegyalov Hatz, a local purveyor of the indigenous Armenian bread staple, stuffed with fresh greens and herbs, found on every Artsakh table.

As for Armenian wines, they were curated by James Saidy, who frequently works with Rossoblu.  They were offered for purchase on the spot, by the glass or the bottle. Choices included wines from the top-tier vineyards of Armenia’s Vayot Dzor region, including Keush NV ‘Origins’ Brut Methode Sparkling, Zulal 2020 Voskehat White, Shofer 2020 Areni Red as well as 2018 Areni Reserve Red, all under the Storica portfolio.

Back in 2020, when the Second Artsakh War was raging on, Halejian and Abgaryan decided that they could use their wide network of industry and community connections to attract restaurateurs, chefs, and a diverse segment of patrons to organize exceptional dinners and curated spirits and wines to raise funds for worthy causes.That was the birth of the concept at Momed in East LA that is now under the “Chefs for Armenia” brand.

According to Halejian, the “Chefs for Armenia” model achieves multiple goals beyond cooking for a cause. “It is essential that we not only raise funds, but also promote awareness about Armenians,

Armenia, and Artsakh to our local communities and beyond. Having a host restaurant and multiple enthusiastic guest chefs support this effort in spreading the word to their audiences is greatly appreciated in helping accomplish this goal.”

The event also brought together a cross-section of Armenians and non-Armenians within the community. “I was thrilled and humbled to see that, in addition to many non-Armenian guests, Armenians of different ages and backgrounds were also represented,” said Halejian. “They came to the table to break bread together, united in their support of helping the thousands of Artsakh Armenians who are struggling right now,” Halejian explained.

AGBU Western Region Executive Director Gohar Stambolyan also updated the guests on the current situation in Armenia after the forced mass exodus of over 100,000 Artsakh Armenians fleeing for their lives across the border to Armenia. “The humanitarian situation in Armenia is growing by the day as the country struggles to respond to the population influx accounting for 3.4 percent of the country’s population. With Armenia’s harsh winter approaching, there is an urgent rush to secure temporary housing and ensure a malnourished population finds strength with access to nutritious food and medical care.”

Stambolyan also shared a short video produced by AGBU, which amplified her report with on-the-ground footage that was a poignant and emotional reminder of what happens to innocent civilians who become targets of ethnic cleansing.

“Thanks to the outpouring of donations to AGBU Global Relief Fund, we have already mobilized major humanitarian aid including the provision of temporary homes, food, medical services, psychosocial support, job search support, and other types of real-time assistance,” Stambolyan reported.  “With such a long list of needs to address beyond the food security effort, we must continue to raise funds to support longer term assistance programs that are invaluable to a community in recovery.”

Finally, the celebrity chefs and sommeliers made their grand entrance to make their own remarks about the “Chefs for Armenia” concept and how proud they were to have the chance to donate their time and culinary talents to support Armenians on the brink of starvation for the 10 months prior to the forced evacuation.

Halejian and the other stakeholders were truly gratified to see the sold-out turnout, especially on a Monday night. She and Abgaryan also asserted that the concept is easy to replicate across other markets nationwide, and even abroad, because of its universal appeal that easily attracts food lovers from different backgrounds and persuasions to expand their horizons and gain insight into other cultures over and above great cuisine. ““These chef dinners could be organized in other markets with Armenian representation and food aficionados alike,” Abgaryan noted. “More of these smaller-capacity events can add up to additional funds for humanitarian aid as it is needed, plus bring greater awareness of causes that aren’t receiving much media attention on a larger scale.”

Halejian was quick to point out, “We even put together an extensive training guide covering every step of the “Chefs for Armenia” playbook to help other fundraisers succeed from start to finish. We are going to bring attention to these worthy causes one city at a time.”

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