10/19/13 10:00am
10/19/2013 10:00 AM

Has anyone ever told you that you “just have to learn to say no”?

Do you feel guilty when you have to choose between participating in two benefits on the same day and wish that there were two of you so you could? Do you see the same people working at almost every charity event? When asked to help, and you really want to beg off, does “yes” or “sure” inexplicably come out of your mouth instead?

Tom Hashagen

If you have answered yes to any of the above questions, I’m afraid to tell you that you have a serious disease — yes, you are a professional volunteer. While that may seem to be a contradiction in terms, volunteers who exhibit the described symptoms have gone to the next level, and there doesn’t seem to be a cure.

By definition, a professional is someone who gets paid regularly for a service rendered. One could argue that most volunteers are “semi-pros,” in the same way that most semi-pro athletes play a sport but must supplement their income with day jobs. But the only payment volunteers get is satisfaction for a job well done, and most of them log enough annual hours to count as a part-time job at the very least, so professional volunteers it is. True, many professional volunteers are retirees, but seeing as simply maintaining the house and yard and keeping the deer out is a full time job anyway, the rating stands.

When helpmate informed me that somehow I had been left off the kitchen crew list for an event raising money for a great local cause, my throat started to close up as I ran for the phone to rectify the error.

“No!” she said, “It’s all right. They said to just show up.”

I relaxed, a little. But you know what? I didn’t show up.

Here’s what happened. Early afternoon on Sunday we decided to explore a few wineries, keeping to Route 25 so as to avoid that vortex of agritainment, Sound Avenue. We wound up at McCall’s, where it had been suggested we go to try some really good reds. In conversation with our server, we discovered that we were mutually acquainted with Tom Schaudel, a famous Long Island chef, and learned that he was busy helping at a benefit in Cutchogue.

Turns out the benefit was for another chef, Gerry Hayden of the North Fork Table and Inn, who has been diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He gets around with help nowadays, but his eyes, nose and taste buds are as good as ever.

I start twitching. On we go toward the ferry, and helpmate spies yet another chef friend chatting with someone in a west-bound parked car. “Hey,” she exclaims, “isn’t that Mike Meehan?” Yes, the same Mike Meehan of H20 in Smithtown. “He’s got to be here for that benefit,” I say, as I start to sweat.

We had already decided to stop at the famous lunch truck at the North Fork Table, and as I’m waiting for my hot dog with “all three” toppings, I see co-owner Mike Mraz and get the details. “You need to go,” helpmate says, matter-of-factly. A quick phone call to Shaudel and I’m committed. Home, I change in to my chef togs and back on the ferry I go.

Arriving at Eight Hands Farm in Cutchogue only forty-five minutes before hors d’oeuvre, I felt a little like an interloper, but that feeling evaporated as I was immediately put to work by Shaudel spooning black coconut rice into small tasting spoons, soon to be topped with a seared scallop, pumpkin relish and a delicious sauce, the ingredients of which I am not at liberty to divulge. That dish finished, I’m off to help wherever I can. I am drawn to a cutting board where a slender log of puff pastry filled with braised lamb and figs is being bias-cut for a platter. Across the tent someone is shucking Race Rock oysters. There’s duck breast being seared in a rondeau out back, next to a huge pot of simmering sauerkraut. The aroma is intoxicating.

The fire-power at this event is staggering. Restaurants and purveyors like Mirabelle, Nick and Tony’s, H20, Alure, Jewel, the Square at Greenport, Blue Canoe, Catapano’s, McCalls, Browders Birds, Blue Duck Bakery, the Riverhead Project, Town Line Barbecue and the Art of Eating have sent their chefs or representatives to be counted as helping one of their own. I spend the night moving sheetpans of duck, local kielbasa and tomato-crusted striped bass, platters of roasted beets and red cabbage, bowls of braised kale and crispy fingerling potatoes.

The crowd of 200 or better barely has room for Claudia Fleming’s Apple-Raspberry Crostada, as Gerry eloquently thanks his guests and comrades-in-food for an unforgettable evening.

Great people, great food, great cause.

At a recent “old-timers” softball game, I saw plenty of the familiar faces at the grill and doing whatever else needed to be done to help raise money for the Shelter Island Boosters. It was especially good to see two or three of the next generation of volunteers coming up, but we could use a few more. I mentioned earlier that a lot of our local volunteers are retirees and they do a tremendous work, but they won’t be around forever.

Do you have what it takes to be a volunteer, even a semi-professional one? There’s plenty of work to go around!

Mr. Hashagen, who teaches culinary arts at Eastern Suffolk BOCES in Riverhead, writes a monthly column for the Shelter Island Reporter.