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Pizza with a purpose: Chef Todd and kids cook up some culinary delight for the Children’s Hospital

By Staff | Aug 14, 2011

Huge smiles lit the faces of three youngsters Saturday morning as they created their own pizza and gelato desert during the third annual “Cooking with Todd” event at The Joint and Run Agrounds, which is an addition to the annual Rumrunner’s Celebrity Chef Night.

The children’s cooking event took off after Chef Todd Johnson, managing partner of Rumrunners, The Joint and Run Agrounds, decided to do something for children after the Rumrunner’s Celebrity Chef Night was deemed to be a huge success with the adults. The celebrity chef night benefits Barbara’s Friends The Children’s Hospital Cancer Fund.

“I was so happy with the event for the adults, that I had to do something for the kids,” Johnson said.

The idea of “Cooking with Todd” stemmed from a personal experience he had while working at Pizza Hut when he was 15. He said his boss brought in children from the Make-A-Wish Foundation to show them how to make pizza.

Johnson said the joy he saw on the kid’s faces stuck with him through all these years, which is why he began the annual “Cooking with Todd” event. He said he wanted to see the smiles on the faces of children whom he is helping.

After Johnson held his first “Cooking with Todd.,” he had a tour of the Children’s Hospital, which gave him a perspective of how the annual Rumrunner’s Celebrity Chef Night benefits the children.

“I met the people who we raise the money for,” Johnson said.

To have the chance to make pizza and gelato with the kids, he said brings additional fulfillment to why he holds the annual celebrity chef night.

Dawn Nordstrom had to wait to tell her son Benjamin, 7, about the event until a couple days prior because he enjoyed it so much last year.

“Out of everything he has done, this is his most favorite,” she said about Benjamin cooking with Chef Todd.

The Nordstroms traveled from Punta Gorda Saturday morning to make sure they were a part of the festivities. Dawn said her son talked about his experience with Johnson non-stop and began helping her in the kitchen even more since creating his own pizza, which was his favorite part of the event.

Benjamin, who was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia in November 2009, is in remission.

“He is doing fantastic,” his mother said.

The 2011 Child of Hope, Caliah Russell, 4, also attended the event Saturday morning with her mother Mindy.

“It’s awesome that she has touched so many people,” Mindy said about her daughter being named the Child of Hope this year.

She was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia on Aug. 27 of last year and also is in remission. Caliah still has 15 months of treatment left.

Mindy said the event Saturday was a wonderful thing because it takes their mind off of being sick.

Michelle Ramsey attended the event with her daughter Olivia, 7, who was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia in December 2010.

She said she was happy to bring her daughter to the event because it brings some normalcy into her life during the maintenance phase of her treatment. Michelle said her daughter is doing really well and excited to start second grade at St. Michaels.

Once the children put on their aprons, Johnson wrote each of their names on it, so they could take them home as a souvenir.

Johnson said once he puts the aprons on the kids, their nervousness seems to subside.

The children were then brought into the kitchen where they flattened, threw and straightened out the dough for their pizza. They then spread sauce before personalizing each pie with the toppings of their choice. Benjamin made a pepperoni pizza, Caliah made a pineapple and mushroom pizza and Olivia created a cheese pizza.

The youngsters and their parents then had the chance to try their creation before going to Run Agrounds where they made vanilla and cinnamon gelato. There they had the chance to stir the gelato base, along with scraping it out of the machine once it was done. After the gelato was scooped into a bowl for them, they had the chance to pick the toppings of their choice.

The eighth annual Rumrunners Celebrity Chef Night, which will be held on Aug. 17,, was inspired by an event Johnson attended with his wife in Aspen. He said the Aspen event included wine vendors and chefs from the area.

“The chef’s food was off-the-charts good,” he said, adding that the fund raiser also provided them with the opportunity to meet the chefs face-to-face.

Johnson said because the event was so laid back, it seemed that people were more generous with their donations.

Eight years ago, he said, Barbara Haskell’s parents came to his restaurant and asked if he would hold a dinner where celebrity waitresses would serve dinners to raise money for the Barbara’s Friends The Children’s Hospital Cancer Fund. Johnson said it was an instant yes because his partner was battling cancer at the time.

The concept of the fund raiser changed and turned into Rumrunner’s Celebrity Chef Night, which has improved and grown over the years.

“I called all my friends and everyone was 100 percent on board,” he said about the celebrity chef night.

Everything was set with 200 reservations for the first Rumrunner’s Celebrity Chef Night. Unfortunately Hurricane Charley hit, which caused the restaurant to lose power for seven days. Johnson said he made the decision to postpone the event for two weeks and did not lose any of the 200 reservations.

Every year the Rumrunner’s Celebrity Chef Night has grown with additions, which includes a live auction this Wednesday. Last year, Johnson said he wrote a check for $45,000 to give to Barbara’s Friends and this year he hopes they will be able to provide $60,000 to the fund.

The Children’s Hospital holds a very special meaning for the three families who participated in the “Cooking with Todd” event Saturday.

Dawn said she does not know how they could have gone through the diagnosis without the Children’s Hospital. She said the staff is very supportive and very compassionate.

“They are wonderful with the kids,” Dawn said, adding that the staff spends time answering the millions of questions her son has.

Michelle said when they have to go to the hospital, they refer to it as ‘let’s check into the hotel,” because of the personalized attention her daughter receives.

“They talk to the kids because they are the main event that is happening,” she said.

Mindy agreed that the staff at the Children’s Hospital is incredible. She said her daughter was recently in the hospital for a couple nights with a fever.

“She cried when she had to leave,” Mindy said because the staff does everything they can to make it not feel like a hospital. “We are very fortunate to have them here locally.”