Special Report | November 2011 | By Milford Prewitt

Wayne Kostroski Goes All In

Taste of the NFL founder hosts one of the biggest parties of the season, all for a good cause.

Wayne Kostroski uses an inspirational epigram to begin each chapter in his recently published memoir of his founding of the Taste of the NFL and its dynamo evolution. None so piercingly speaks to who he is than one by mystery writer Martha Grimes.

In introducing Chapter 7 of Bring Out The Best, Kostroski quotes Grimes: “We don’t know who we are until we see what we can do.”

That in a nutshell says it all about Kostroski, a man who time and time again tackles the seemingly insurmountable and uses goodwill and professional camaraderie to fight hunger.

Kostroski’s boundless humanitarianism in the face of awesome odds has been driven by the fear of letting others down, especially food banks, hunger-relief groups, and nutritional-awareness nonprofits that have seen their donations nosedive in recent years.

Take the work stoppage and player lockout threat that might have killed the 2011 professional football season, and by extension, the Super Bowl; or more to the point, Kostroski’s masterstroke of good will, the Taste of the NFL (TNFL).

If the most hellish acts of man and nature have not stopped Kostroski and his die-hard volunteer celebrities and big-hearted lesser-knowns in the past, why should anyone have suspected that a mere labor dispute between billionaire team owners and millionaire football players would have?

He’s done it before when naysayers or current events cast doubt on his ability to bring hundreds of chefs, athletes, and restaurateurs, all of whom travel on their own dime to the Super Bowl host city to work for free in staging one of the most lavish, widely supported, and beloved hunger relief fundraisers in the nation.

Wayne Kostroski and his James Beard Humanitarian of the Year (2010) Award

Lest anyone doubt Kostroski’s resolve, consider that in spite of the hysteria and intrusive airport-security procedures that made flying a grueling chore in the months after September 11, 2001, the TNFL in Super Bowl host city New Orleans that season was among the series’ most emotional and memorable.

Or consider TNFL’s staging at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, for Super Bowl XLIV when the New Orleans Saints won their first world championship in 2010, just five years after the Crescent City experienced the wrath of Hurricane Katrina.

Or more recently, consider how major big-brand sponsors that had supported TNFL to the hilt are now using the past three years of the Great Recession as an excuse to cut their philanthropic ties to Kostroski.

So should anyone have feared that a little tempest in football would have undone what Kostroski and his band of followers have done for 20 years?

For this season's Super Bowl, the party will take place at Lucas Oil Stadium, the architecturally striking convention center and entertainment canyon that is the home field of the Indianapolis Colts, on Saturday, February 4, 2012.

“You know, it’s a good question you raise about the lockout,” he says. “But it’s one I’ve been asked a number of times, and all I can say is every few years something huge comes down the pike that may have an impact on what we do.

“Whether it was Sept. 11 and we still went forward, or Hurricane Katrina and now this God-awful economy when some of our major backers are slashing their support. In all of those cases we went forward,” he says. “So we are moving 100 percent with our plans, trying to help feed people, raising awareness about hunger and trying to educate struggling families on good nutrition and how to stretch the food budget and the food they buy.”

A celebrated chef, savvy businessman, entrepreneur, inspirational speaker, humanitarian, and now author, Kostroski has an inventory of industry awards, peer accolades, humanitarian plaudits, and academic and culinary honors that would fill a page in print.

Kostroski, who lives with his wife and three children in Edina, Minnesota, a Minneapolis suburb, seems not to know an idle moment.

When he is not on the phone rallying his supporters and colleagues, giving press interviews, or making speeches about nutrition and philanthropy, Kostroski is the co-owner of Cuisine Concepts, a multiunit dinnerhouse group and bakery based in Minneapolis.

Mark Haugen, Kostroski’s close friend whom he hired 25 years ago and who has become a business partner and corporate chef at Cuisine Concepts, says that knowing his friend the way he does, failing to hold the event was not an option.

In his book, Kostroski suggests that his blessings of good health, marriage to his best friend for 28 happy years, three loving children, a long friendship and partnership with Haugen, and a thriving business come with the responsibility to help others.

“Beyond family and friends, the blessing I am most grateful for, however, is that of somehow being introduced to the mindset that one must be involved in life to achieve a truer level of happiness and satisfaction,” he writes. “Yeah, I get it, the usual expressions of making a difference, being part of the team, giving back, etc., have resonated with me; but it actually is true! The more you give, the more you get back.”

He is the face, the magnet and biggest cheerleader of TNFL, which, over 20 years has raised about $10 million for hunger relief by staging one of the universe’s grandest parties the Saturday night before the big game, usually in the host city’s stadium.

Already a board member of the hunger-fighting nonprofit Share Our Strength (SOS) long before he thought of TNFL, Kostroski says that after the NFL announced in 1989 that Minneapolis would be the host city for Super Bowl XXVI in 1991, he immediately began thinking of hosting a party in town that would feature chefs from the then 28 NFL teams and use SOS’s Taste of the Nation model: Get sponsors to pay for site rental, marketing, supplies, and other logistics and turn over 100 percent of the proceeds from party-goers to charitable causes.

Beyond the food, music, and drink, attendees would get to mingle with famed football players, past and present, who would help serve food from the restaurant booth representing the NFL city team they played for.

Like his professional honors, his list of industry, professional, charitable, and civic involvements would rival his culinary awards.

He is active in the Minneapolis’s business community. He has helped arrange “Holidazzle,” a holiday parade during the Christmas season in downtown Minneapolis. He is a member of the board of the Edina Soccer Association and past chair of the town’s Chamber of Commerce.

He has been active with the Minneapolis Restaurant Association, the National Restaurant Association, sat on the board of Share Our Strength, and has won top honors from foodservice journals and mainstream consumer media.

But it’s his humanitarian efforts that have made him an industry icon.

The philanthropic awards he has garnered include the Cornerstone Humanitarian of the Year (2004) award from the NRA, the Pope John XXIII Humanitarian Award at Viterbo University, and just last year, the James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year award.

But the award he wants the most is to get this year’s TNFL off the ground without interruption, delay, postponement, or a single offside penalty.

Gena Berry, founder of Culinary Works, a culinary consulting, food styling, event management, culinary training and chef media coaching group based in Atlanta, has worked with Kostroski as chef coordinator for 18 of the past 21 years of TNFL’s existence.

She says that understanding why Kostroski is able to inspire so many people, who travel on their own money to support him, has a lot to do with the man himself and his talents to motivate.

Berry says Kostroski was a keynote speaker at a conference of catering executives in California she attended fresh out of college, talking about hunger and malnourishment. Though she had been aware of the problem in America, she had never heard anyone make the topic more poignant.

“It was as if he was preaching right to me,” she recalls. “Naturally, I’ve heard people talk about hunger before. But that day, it was like the gospel. You could say I drank the Kool-Aid.”

Indianapolis chef Greg Hardesty and former Indianapolis Colts player Ken Dilger at last year's Taste of the NFL at the Dallas Cowboys stadium

She wrote Kostroski later from her Atlanta home, telling him how much his address had inspired her and asking him how she could get involved.

A few weeks later, Berry says, Kostroski wrote her back, saying he was coming to Atlanta the following year and would love to have her cook with him at an event to raise money for hunger relief.

Little did she know that that event would be the third outing for TNFL, accompanying Super Bowl XXVIII in 1994. Berry has been involved every year since.

Berry says what a lot of people don’t realize about TNFL is that the participants, whether they are huge celebrity talents like perennial presences Bobby Flay or Drew Nieporent or obscure cooks deep down the line from a barbecue shack, the cooks and volunteers treat the weekend like their own party or vacation especially when they stage their own party that Friday night.

“It’s like getting away for summer camp,” Berry says. “You see all of these big-name chefs who work hard, and now they get a chance to play hard with buddies they haven’t seen in a year; they are raising money for hunger relief; all cooking different styles, and different foods in this fabulous event.”

What is also not known about the participants is that almost all of them leave town before the Super Bowl is actually played.

“No one gets tickets to the game and quite honestly, most of them have to be back at their own restaurants,” she says. “Some don’t even rent rooms but work right through to Saturday night and leave for the airport.”

Veteran foodservice management expert Robert Nyman, principal of the Nyman Group, Scottsdale, Arizona, says he knew of Kostroski’s reputation for nearly 20 years and was honored when Kostroski called him to solicit his participation in the planning committee when TNFL was setting up for Super Bowl XLII in 2008 in Glendale, Ariz.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Wayne,” Nyman says. “I believe in the philosophy of his organization and the benefits it provides to so many people.

“But I just love watching him at work. I believe the TNFL is his mandate in life because he believes in it so much. And the reason for that is that he loves the hospitality business and is passionate about it.

“He transcends symbolism to the point of practicality so you understand what needs to be done in real concrete ways.”

Almost no one within reach of civic or charitable food networks starves in the U.S. today. But the irony that mystifies Kostroski is that never before have Americans been fatter, less fit or less nutritionally aware of the consequences of their bad eating habits.

As a result, Kostroski says TNFL’s mission is being tweaked to raise nutritional awareness, teach poor families how to cook more healthfully and stretch their food dollars, and lobby food manufacturers and some chains to do more to see that nutritious food eclipses their fatty, salty and sugary fan favorites.

“In a real sense, our mission and dedication is stronger than ever,” Kostroski declares. “We look at childhood obesity, for example, and it stems from the fact that millions of children are overindulging in foods they should not be eating, but are within the budgets of their families.

“It is ironic that in a nation with access to the most nutritious foods and educational programs to raise awareness, we are fatter than ever.

“So one of the things we are doing going forward is to see that our food manufacturing partners become more involved in the problem and that our food banks, food pantries, and churches get access to foods that do not contribute to the problem, but help solve it.”