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A host of big-ticket fundraisers that connect the food and entertainment worlds, Billy Harris helps generate millions of dollars for charities nationwide.
“Nothing raises more money than a dinner with chefs Nancy Silverton, Alice Waters or Mary Sue Milliken coming to your house,” says Harris, 50. Often donning sequined jackets to match a boisterous persona, he has emceed for L.A. Loves Alex’s Lemonade, which battles child cancer; Beverly Hills’ Share Our Strength No Kid Hungry Gala; and South Beach Food & Wine, among others.
Harris has been known to recruit attendees like Rob Reiner and Cameron Crowe and donors such as James L. Brooks and Siren Studios CEO Dean Gavoni to open their wallets for auctioned private and barn dinners with chefs including Suzanne Goin, Jonathan Waxman and Giada De Laurentiis. With help from co-hosts like Jimmy Kimmel, such items can fetch $300,000.
Harris comes from a long line of vaudevillians and entertainers, so shtick runs in his blood. The Philadelphia-born, New Jersey-raised Harris went from child theater actor to doing stand-up comedy on cruise ships. Soon, his keen sense of timing and the ability to read a room got him regular gigs hosting fundraisers for private schools and corporate functions.
The convergence with the culinary world came later, when his friend Joe Allegro, who was hired to produce events for the Food Network, needed a host. That’s when Harris found himself rubbing elbows with celeb chefs like Rachael Ray, Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. He followed Allegro to Share Our Strength, where he started doing the live auctions. Now he’s on the road 200 days a year, criss-crossing the country to help raise millions of dollars for groups that also include the New York Food Bank, Autism Speaks, the James Beard Foundation, March of Dimes and the National Institute of Health, just to name a few. Harris also produces soirees with business partner Paul Vitagliano, the most prominent being the Dinner With Harris series — quickly sold-out parties held around the U.S., like a 300-person barbecue with Dave Grohl, who grilled and performed at the L.A. Food Bank, a charity Harris supports.
“Billy is one of the gang amongst the best and most famous chefs in the country,” says Goin, a co-host of L.A. Loves Alex’s Lemonade. “We all trust and work with him to raise the most money possible for our favorite charities.”
“His superb auctioneering skills convinced my wife and me not once, but twice, to bid on once-in-a-lifetime trips to Europe,” says Gavoni, who landed a dinner at Silverton’s home in Umbria this summer. “His ability to convince some of the world’s finest chefs to donate their talents to raise money for things like childhood cancer is just astounding.”
For an upcoming Dinner With Harris event (Aug. 11), Somebody Feed Phil‘s Phil Rosenthal will join chefs Hernan Stutzer and Alberto Llano, from Georgia’s Del Sur, and Maple Block Meat Co.’s Daniel Weinstock for an open-pit Argentinian barbecue feast in Culver City. Proceeds from the $145 tickets go to the L.A. Food Bank. “He’s a great auctioneer, a great organizer, promoter, a true friend to the entire food and restaurant community and, most importantly, truly cares about helping others,” says Rosenthal.
A version of this story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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Jeriana San Juan