NEW YORK — Ming Tsai, Mario Batali, Marc Forgione, Masaharu Morimoto and ... Matt Damon?
It's an unlikely culinary cast that teamed Tuesday night to raise money for families struggling to pay their bills as they care for children fighting cancer.
Damon donned a white chef's coat for sous chef duties under Ming in the center of a hotel ballroom to prepare hors d'oeuvres ahead of a sit-down meal hosted by the Family Reach Foundation, a nonprofit the actor learned of through his brother, Kyle.
Cancer is close to their hearts. Since 2010, their dad has been battling multiple myeloma, a cancer that begins in plasma cells of bone barrow.
"My dad did very well in his life," the Academy Award winner said. "He's retired and he doesn't have to worry about any of this, but you know, it's enough to worry about the cancer without actually thinking about taking on all these other ancillary issues. It's really a lot to handle."
In addition to the "M'' chefs, Floyd Cardoz also pitched in. The Top Chef Masters winner last year pledged his $100,000 in winnings to cancer causes.
Ming and Damon joked before cooking commenced on the actor's skill level in the kitchen, with chef promising no food poisoning and Damon confessing he's no Bourne supreme.
"Oh no, I suck," he said, flashing a smile.
On the menu: waffle seafood pizzas with a dollop of caviar from Morimoto, poached salmon with a black garlic tapenade from Tsai and orecchiette with rapini pesto and sausage from Batali.
The Damon brothers recalled lots of chicken dishes growing up, and their mom asking them to pitch in on meal duty. Matt's specialty? Beef stroganoff, with onion soup out of the bag. The father of four said he and his wife keep it simple food wise at home.
"It's not rocket science," he said. "You try and sneak in something green and say don't worry, there's going to be another meal in three hours, so don't make it too complicated."
Chefs, Ming said, are prone to helping out. The restaurateur and TV personality in Damon's hometown of Boston is one of the foundation's ambassadors and convinced his chef pals to join him after he fulfilled the dying wish of a young girl to eat at his Blue Ginger with loved ones.
"The best part of our job is we get instant gratification," said Ming, who has shown families touched by cancer how to cook healthy, inexpensive meals.
The small, 15-year-old foundation works with 16 hospitals around the country to identify families in need of help with rent, utility bills, even paying tolls to and from treatments, said Rick Morello, a board member and founder.
"But the great thing about a foundation like this is it doesn't matter where you come down on health care," Damon said. "Nobody's against families who get put in a situation that is not of their own doing."
Raquel Rohlfing, a single mom in Boston, was on hand with her 7-year-old son Mikalo, who was diagnosed with leukemia at 18 months. She quit her job to care for him full-time, landing in a homeless shelter before a hospital connected her with Family Reach.
"They said, 'Don't worry, we'll take care of it.' They relieved a lot of the burden that I could not do. My role was to hold his hand and get him through it, and just take care of him."
After a relapse, Mikalo required a bone marrow transplant and a year of home isolation, something that couldn't happen in a shelter.
Of the debate over health care reform, Damon said, it would be difficult for anyone to ignore the needs of families struggling with a sick child after meeting just one.
"You would have to be enormously hardhearted in the face of something that personal," he said.
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Family Reach Foundation website: http://familyreach.org