Some costumes came out before Fantasy Fest even hit. Some well-known members of our Keys community put on the cowboy hats, geisha gowns, even Elvis-style pork chop sideburns, for Benihana’s Celebrity Chef Cook-off Benefit for Literacy Volunteers!
“I felt like they were talking about me because I couldn’t understand the language,” Viktor Slavov stepped away from the sizzling Teppanyaki grill at Benihana on Key West’s Atlantic Boulevard to share with the Key West Weekly his experience upon arriving on the island 12 years ago from the Czech Republic.
Slavov started out cleaning at Turtle Kraals, and was constricted in his capabilities because of a language barrier.
“The Keys are a melting pot,” informs Mary Casanova, executive director of LVA, “we have Spanish, Asians, and Eastern Europeans.
She points to the hospitality industry for attracting employees where English is a second language.
“Those are the people walking through the door,” Casanova talks about the culture and workforce trends.
Mark Hyatt, owner of Benihana is familiar with the climate and servers who share similar stories such as Slavov’s.
“We have a lot of different ethnicities, and because of that a lot of our chefs and servers aren’t able to write, read, and speak in English really well,” remarks Hyatt.
25 years ago, Literacy Volunteers of America was born to tutor and teach adults who either cannot, or are limited in their ability to read, write, and speak English. Only three years ago, due to budget cuts, the agency shrunk from 27 employees to, just two part-time employees. That said, 114 volunteers have signed on to share their English language abilities.
“We aim to improve their reading and writing, ability to obtain employment, obtain better employment, obtain citizenship, and obtain self-sufficiency,” Casanova explains. “Being able to communicate in English is crucial to personal freedom. We help them achieve their goals.”
Hyatt is helping offset the financial loss of the LVA with the cook-off. High-profile members of the community such as, Vice Mayor and businessman Mark Rossi, train to take on the Teppanyaki grills and sell ten tickets to diners who arrive in costume.
“This is Benihana’s event and goes with the character of the Keys,” Judge Peary Fowler and vice president of LVA, points out.
“They like fundraising events that are a little different, and that give them a way to interact.”
One glance at the statistics tells the LVA is as imperative to the Keys climate as the Caribbean winds.
• 27% of Adults Don’t Speak Enough English to Communicate Effectively
• In 25 Years the LVA has Tutored 4,200 Students
• Literacy Volunteers of America
“This is a sensitive issue,” says Casanova. “They’re afraid they’re friends will find out. They sometimes rely on memorizations. As for filling out forms they can sign their names but need help digesting the rest of the document. They feel fearful and ashamed.
It’s tough to learn to read and write if you haven’t done it as a child.”
Slavov signed up to sit with an LVA tutor after his first year on the island. They spent two days a week together reading the Miami Herald and New York Times. Slavov, who’s now the chef at Marriott Beachside’s Town & Tavern attests the attention opened a door in his life.
“It was unbelievable,” he remarks, wiping the sweat from his brow formed over the Teppanyaki grill. “If I didn’t learn English I would still be the dishwasher and I wanted to better myself and that’s why I pushed myself and bettered myself through the school.”
The cook-off classic stirred up over $15,000 for Literacy Volunteers of America! This is the organization’s signature event.
To be a chef next year, or to volunteer call 294•4352. There are volunteer opportunities in the Lower, Middle, and Upper Keys!
The winner of Benihana’s Celebrity Chef Cook-Off tightens her apron so she doesn’t end up wearing the food.
Sheila Devendorf works as an event planner and dished up a delightful serving of stir-fry for her table of James Bond movie impersonators!
Matthew Reaub wears his chef’s costume with the flair of The King!
A little sauce for dipping, and some bell-bottom white polyester pants to inspire some hip swinging! Matthew Reaub, manager of Rick’s and Durty Hairy’s, ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog fryin’ at Benihana’s!
Chuck Meir, manager of the Red Garter, Rick’s ditched his work attire to cook like The King! A little shrimp and a shake rake in the dough for Literacy Volunteers of America!
Even a quarter of the proceeds from the spirits poured, Mark Hyatt donated to LVA. The bartenders who made the night happen. Vin Pham middle George Arriola. They’re pictured with Judge Peary Fowler (middle) and Mary Casanova (right), Executive Director of LVA.
Benihana owner, Mark Hyatt with Mary Casanova (left) and Judge Peary Fowler. “We’re very happy to do this for charity,” the host is humble about his generous donation of his facility, time, tables, and staff.
Former LVA Student and Town & Tavern chef, Viktor Slavov.
“After you learn the language of those around you, the people change the way they interact with you! It’s like the world has a whole new meaning for me. It’s unbelievable,” he raves about the program… before going back to the burner!