“I really love the Tastebuds event because it’s our mission in action.”
In the past several years, Pittsburgh has seen more than its fair share of food-centric events. But the annual “Tastebuds” event presented by Best Buddies Pittsburgh is in a class by itself and not just because of food that will be served, but because of the relationships it fosters.
“I really love the Tastebuds event because it’s our mission in action,” says Samantha Civitate, area director of Best Buddies Pittsburgh. That mission is to end the social, physical and economic isolation of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
At Tastebuds, chefs are paired up with a “buddy” who becomes their sous chef for the evening and, more importantly, a new, true friend. This year’s event takes place on November 5th at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
Best Buddies is an international nonprofit organization with programs in 54 countries and all 50 U.S. states. There are a few events similar to Tastebuds in other places, but as far as Civitate knows, nothing matches it in scale.
Tastebuds has grown each year since it began in 2016. This year 24 restaurants are participating, including Superior Motors, Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream, and current Smallman Galley residents Joey’s Snack Bar, Iron Born and Home.
A majority of the pairs have been together for all three years of the program and are excited to come back for each one. Helenka Foley and Chef Kate Lasky are one of those pairs. Lasky is co-owner and chef at Apteka, a vegan restaurant serving Eastern European cuisine in the East End.
“I think we got paired up together because we both have Polish roots,” Lasky says. “[Helenka was] born in Poland and I have a Polish restaurant, so they were like ‘you guys will get along.’”
Foley and Lasky first got to meet at the annual luncheon that Best Buddies holds each year for chef-buddy pairs who will be participating in Tastebuds. Then, they go into the kitchen to prepare.
“It’s so much fun cooking with Kate, and she teaches me all about it,” Foley says.
According to Civitate, Tastebuds is a great opportunity for the participants to get hands-on experience learning a new skill and maybe even finding a new hobby.
“One of our buddies asked for a knife set for Christmas so that she could cook, and we hear that a lot that their culinary interest is piqued through this event and then they continue to cook at home.”
Another buddy named Juliet had such a good experience at Tastebuds with Chef Adam Kucenic at Muddy Waters Oyster Bar that she was hired at the restaurant.
“Not only are we displaying the friendships between the buddies and the chefs, we’re also displaying the abilities of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities—showing that they can cook and they can hold jobs and they can really do anything that somebody without a disability can do,“ Civitate says.
From a chef’s perspective, Lasky says that participating in Tastebuds and spending time with Foley provides her with a rare opportunity to step away from her busy day-to-day routine at Apteka and do something fun.
“When we get to see each other we’re just like old friends at this point and it’s so nice to get to hang out and just focus on something that’s a really awesome cause and do it in the context of just [being] two friends hanging out, having fun together,” says Lasky.
The Tastebuds event, while providing a unique opportunity for meaningful friendships to form between local chefs and people with intellectual disabilities, is itself a fundraiser for Best Buddies Pittsburgh to be able to expand their programming throughout Western Pennsylvania. They’re working towards doubling their one-to-one Friendship program at the elementary, middle school, high school and college levels, as well as their Citizens program, which is an adult program that mimics the Friendship program for individuals who are over 18 and aren’t registered in school.
“My favorite [part of Tastebuds] is the inclusion of everyone, and people supporting everybody and what they made. It’s a great thing for the community to come out and support us and learn about what Best Buddies is,” Foley says.
“I’m glad I’m a part of it,” Foley continues. “And I’m glad I’m a part of Tastebuds because I got Kate, who is like a sister to me.”
Tastebuds brings people together to eat food and celebrate friendship. Those who attend the event will get to walk around and see a room full of friendships like Lasky and Foley’s. It’s an event that will leave people with full bellies, and fuller hearts.
“[Helenka and I] just connected so well immediately, and every time we’re together we find out how similar we are and how much we have in common, and we have the same way of looking at the world,” Lasky says. “We like the same things, we have the same values, and I think this is a really big one for both of us—we like to show up and support this community, we like to have a voice to say that this is something that’s really important, and then also just to benefit from it ourselves with this friendship. What a cool thing.”