Every autumn, the Valley simmers with anticipation when Real Men Cook participants gather at Flag Is Up Farms in Solvang. This year’s event happens on Saturday, Oct. 21, from 6 to 10 p.m.

The 26th annual extravaganza, held by Arts Outreach, has become legendary. Arts Outreach, which has organized the event at Monty and Pat Roberts’ famous horse ranch for nearly three decades, raises money to provide art instruction and activities at local schools and for elderly groups throughout Santa Barbara County.

“Real Men Cook is our biggest fundraiser of the year,” said Sandie Mullin, executive director of the nonprofit Arts Outreach in Los Olivos. “It provides funds for all of our programs, but specifically our arts-in-schools program. Generally, it raises somewhere between $40,000 and $50,000.”

The programs provide six weeks of art education, with three sessions at each participating local school, for 18 weeks.

“It allows the schools to continue offering arts and art enrichment,” Mullin said, noting Arts Outreach currently serves approximately 3,500 kids and 1,500 seniors.

“It also helps fund our elderly arts program,” she said. “Also, we have a summer youth theater program and our Valley glee program.”

With up to 50 amateur chefs who know their way around indoor kitchens and outdoor grills, Real Men Cook attracts three dozen participating vintners and brewers.

Mark Swanitz, principal at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School, participates as a chef every year.

“It’s a great event,” he said of Real Men Cook. “They ask as many men in the community, with an inkling to cook, to make bite-size servings and prepare 300 of those. It’s [about] bragging rights as much as anything, but there are prizes.”

With professional chefs judging the fare, prizes are awarded in 10 categories, including appetizers, soups, salads, meat, fish, vegetarian, entrees, breads, desserts and local home brews. Winners are announced at the end of the evening, which will include live entertainment provided once again by Livewire, a rock band from Lompoc.

One of the professional chefs who’ll judge Real Men Cook offerings this year is Maili Halme.

“I’ve been doing it five or six years,” said Halme, celebrated owner of soon-to-reopen Mattei’s Tavern on Railway Avenue in Los Olivos. “I originally didn’t know it was a fundraiser. I just thought it was a lot of fun. I like that, because [Real Men Cook] is open to everyone. I know a lot of the men who cook put a lot of effort into it. As a side note, it raises money for Arts Outreach, which is one of my favorite fundraisers in the Valley.”

Halme, who is currently busy preparing for Mattei’s Tavern’s grand opening, said participating cooks are asked to select the categories in which they want their food to be judged.

“The ribs are always a stiff competition,” she said, remembering a tantalizing chili from a previous year as one of her favorite dishes.

Cooking for education

Swanitz is one of the participants who has prepared chili for Real Men Cook.

“I won the chili category a couple of years ago with a chile mole,” said Swanitz, who returned to Santa Ynez a dozen years ago to be principal at the high school.

“I grew up here,” he said. “I lived here 19 years, moved away and went to college, and moved back 12 years ago. It’s never been part of my plan to move back and be principal, but it worked out that way and it’s been fun.”

Part of the fun, he said, is participating in local events like Real Men Cook, which not only gives him a chance to play chef but also raises money to bring art education back to local schools.

“I’m an educator, and [Arts Outreach] is a great organization and a good cause,” Swanitz said.

Noting that Mullen’s husband is a teacher at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School, he said every year at least three faculty members participate in Real Men Cook.

Mullen attributes the event’s popularity to increased participation from men like Swanitz, with a passion for cooking.

“It’s definitely increased in the past few years,” she said of the crowds Real Men Cook attracts. “Three years ago we raised 25 percent more than in previous years.”

She attributes the fundraising increase to the growing popularity of food lovers, renewed interest in providing arts education to K-12 students, and the lure of attending an event at Flag Is Up Farms.

“People love it because it’s a down-to-earth fundraiser,” Mullen said, pointing out every $2 the organization raises provides one hour of arts education per child.

“People have started referring to it as ‘the party of the year,’” she said. “I love having it at Flag Is Up Farms. Monty and Pat are huge supporters of Arts Outreach. They’re very generous to have it there, year after year.”

Kathy Brown, a former president of Arts Outreach board of directors and co-owner of Kalyra Winery in Santa Ynez, estimated 300 people attend the event each year, not including participants and judges.

“Real Men Cook is just an amazing community event where chefs — men — cook,” said Brown, who has two children, ages 12 and 14. “That’s how I found out about Arts Outreach. That’s why I became a huge supporter … because my kids have benefited from it.”

Brown said the combination of Valley men serving gourmet dishes, combined with local celebrity chef/judges, along with a People’s Choice award, makes Real Men Cook a popular community event.

“I would say there’s a little bit of a friendly competition between the men to see who’s going to win,” said Brown, who also credits local wineries, breweries and businesses with making the event a perennial success. “Flag Is Up Farms is always very generous by providing space at a nominal fee.

“The community is very generous in supporting the event, as well,” she continued, noting an auction is held to raise funds for Arts Outreach. “The shops and businesses donate lots of things.”

Asked to recall her most memorable dish from past Real Men Cook events, Brown hesitated, as if pondering all the delicious choices.

“One year,” she said, “one of the guys did these amazing ribs — the best ribs I’ve ever had. The craft brews are good, too. But hands-down, the ribs were amazing.”

The new proprietor of Mattei’s Tavern concurred with Brown’s assessment.

“It’s a ton of fun,” said chef Halme, who is looking forward to sampling dishes and judging this year’s Real Men Cook. “All the wineries and the breweries are there. It’s just a really great vibe.”

Swanitz said he’s looking forward to cooking — and sampling the competition’s fare.

“Once you’re done serving your food, you can enjoy the party,” he said. “There’s great chefs, there’s hobbyist chefs, there’s wannabe chefs ... I wouldn’t go out year after year if it wasn’t a pleasant experience. People come up to you from the community and it’s a really good time.”

Although Real Men Cook raises tens of thousands of dollars to help bring art education to students at Valley schools, Mullen pointed out it’s still a competition.

“The men who cook are really fun,” she said, “but they take it seriously. They’re real competitive because they’re men. And I think they know we really appreciate it.”

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