Sometimes, a glass of wine and a plate of gourmet food can make the world a better place. And if that wine and dinner are part of AIDS Services of Austin’s (ASA) Red Ribbon Dinner series, it’s almost certainly helping play an important role in battling a devastating disease.
Now in its 19th year, the dinner series has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for ASA. In each of the last four years, the dinners have brought in an average of $25,000. It’s serious stuff, but the idea behind the Red Ribbon dinners was to also include some lighthearted fun.
“The dinners started like ASA, a grassroots effort to make a difference,” said Kevin Witcher, the board chair of ASA. “If you look at what the environment was like 19 years ago for AIDS, it was truly life or death. A group of like-minded philanthropic individuals started out the dinners to help out folks from a fund-raising standpoint, but also to bring folks together and add levity during dark times.”
Like many AIDS service organizations, ASA relies on a combined funding stream made up of grants, fund-raising and donations. But recent trends in government grant funding have meant that more and more money is earmarked for medical uses, meaning services like ASA’s dental clinic and food pantry aren’t eligible for many grants.
Money raised from the Red Ribbon Dinners helps fund those vital services, Witcher said. And unlike a gala, the dinners run year-round—typically there is a Red Ribbon Dinner every other month.
“People like to eat,” Witcher continued. “This is a series of events that’s focused on foodies… it’s also pretty affordable. You’re paying $125 for a multicourse meal, complete with wine pairings, and they don’t skimp on anything.”
For the chefs involved, the dinners are more than just another event. Wink, one of the oldest partners with the series, has been hosting Red Ribbon Dinners for more than a decade, and co-owner and co-chef Mark Paul has personal connections to the mission.
“When you have friends who are dying, at 22 and 23 years old, it opens your eyes a little more. You do want to get involved, and you do want to acknowledge that this is a real issue,” he said. “In the early ‘90s, I had several friends who were diagnosed with HIV, and some died. That’s not an uncommon story.”
Paul said it’s strange to have hosted so many Red Ribbon Dinners—while he’s happy to continue supporting ASA, he wished they had a happier occasion to gather for. A good friend of his who had also been involved with the Red Ribbon Dinners recently passed away from AIDS-related complications, serving as a solemn reminder that the disease still all too often claims the lives of loved ones.
Nonetheless, Red Ribbon Dinners are a gustatory delight. The menu for January’s dinner, which Wink hosted, included cold smoked salmon with fennel-apple salad, gulf shrimp crepes, roasted quail, grilled blackbuck antelope and the enticingly named foie bombe.
Paul said he sits down with representatives from Glazer’s, another longtime sponsor, to discuss which wines will be paired with each course and often adjusts his menu according to the wines he tries. The smoked salmon, for instance, was a total departure from what he’d originally planned, but once he tasted it alongside the sauvignon blanc, he couldn’t resist adding it.
“I think that these dinners are really important to do, just as a symbol of our ongoing commitment to ASA,” Paul said. “They’re also a great group of people. It’s a diverse group, from all sorts of walks of life, and the nice thing is, there tends to be a real wealth of the familial aspect of that. When we do these dinners, you know all these people, they’re not only here for the dinners, they’re regular clients of ours.”