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Nailing Dishes at Carpenter’s

For the 5th year, local restaurants showcase signature plates for shelter.

Mary Abraham and Eric Reid of Del Merei Grille have been proud to help raise money for Carpenter’s Shelter at its annual Cook-off — an event that, for Reid, also has a little pride at stake.

"Eric takes it very seriously," said Abraham, co-owner of the Del Ray restaurant, of the People’s Choice Award that’s given out each year at the event. "He won last year; I don’t know what he’ll do if he doesn’t win this year."

The 5th annual Carpenter’s Cook-off is scheduled to be held on Sunday, April 29 from noon to 3 p.m. at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave. Along with family activities, giveaways and music from The Melonheads, close to 20 local restaurants will be serving tastings of their signature dishes as well as recipes developed exclusively for the Cook-off. Ticket costs are $40 for adults, $10 for children ages 6-17 and free to children 5 and under. Tickets may be purchased at the door or by calling 703-548-7500, ext. 204.

Those in attendance will have the opportunity to vote for the People’s Choice Award, won by Del Merei last year, and the Kid’s Choice Award, captured by Hollin Hall Pastries in 2006. Plus, for the first time, there will be an applause-based "Best Dressed Restaurant" for the best well-decorated table at the event.

"Stardust always does it up. So does RTs," said Fran Becker, executive director of Carpenter’s Shelter, which is headquartered at 930 N. Henry St. in Alexandria.

Carpenter’s Shelter is an organization that provides services that promote self-reliance to Northern Virginia’s homeless population — everything from the developmental needs of children to quality permanent housing. Proceeds from the Cook-off will benefit the Carpenter’s Shelter Transitional Services Program, addressing the many needs of its graduates as they transition back into independent community living.

"For five years, the community restaurants have given up Sunday afternoon to help those in need here in the community," said Becker.

More information about the organization can be found at www.carpentersshelter.org.

BECKER SAID the initial inspiration for the Cook-off came from the shelter’s board chair, who challenged other board members to come up with an event that could not only benefit the community but challenge local chefs to develop recipes that could feed the shelter’s 88 residents.

"Our first year, it was a challenge for the chefs for them to come up with a recipe that they could serve in a 100-plus tasting style," said Becker. "Something a church group or business could fix in a way where you just have to times it by six."

Entering its fifth year, the Cook-off has taken on a life of its own. Now restaurants are featuring their own signature dishes, offering elaborate decorations of their serving spaces and treating the event like an informal cooking competition.

"They’ve done a good job in keeping everyone interested, from a restaurant standpoint. You get to interact more with the guests," said Abraham, who expects Del Merei to once again showcase its pulled beef BBQ at the Cook-off.

"Not only are the restaurants doing this in collaborative way, but it’s also wonderful that the community has embraced it," said Becker, adding that she begins to get inquiries about the Cook-off as early as January each year.

The Cook-off is, in many ways, a total communal effort. Ridgewells Caterers offers all of the cooking equipment for the afternoon. The Birchmere offers its space for free to Carpenter’s Shelter for the event. "It’s kind of a natural fit for us. We’re really pleased and proud to do it," said Gary Oelze, owner of The Birchmere. "It’s fun, it’s rewarding, and everybody has a good time."

The Carpenter’s Cook-off has gotten pro bono support from ABCO; Juicebox Design Communications; Kim Jackson Photography; The Melonheads; Ridgewells Caterers; Sowa Printing and Graphics; and Williams Whittle Communications.

ACCORDING TO BECKER, many of the recipes presented by the participating restaurants — which span Alexandria and include some from Arlington — will again be featured in a special recipe book available at the event.

She said that Carpenter’s hopes to raise $85,000 through its only fundraiser of the year, with the fund ear-marked for the Carpenter’s Shelter Transitional Services Program.

"It’s a program that works with our working poor families here at the shelter, and stays with them after they graduate. Through case management, we’re able to continue to offer resources, not only to our adults but to our children."

Becker also hopes the Cook-off remains the fun all-ages event that it’s been for the last four years.

"It’s a wonderful event for families," she said. "I like to say it almost has a wedding feel: You come in and you know some people, but you don’t know all. But at the end, you and your kids have had a great time."