Denise Silverman, executive director of the Wine & Food Foundation, champions culinary education for Austin’s vibrant community.
By Katherine Powell, Photos Courtesy of Wine & Food Foundation
Denise Silverman is no stranger to hard work and leadership. From starting her career in journalism to finding her entrepreneurial spirit as an event management company owner, Silverman’s portfolio showcases her ability to not only build a business but understand the world of nonprofits and the individuals she seeks to help through culinary access, professional education and cultured exposure.
Please briefly describe your professional background.
I started out my career in journalism; I was a reporter for a trade magazine. I know going from journalism to the executive director of a nonprofit are two very different careers, but it has been a seamless transition. I’m a worker bee. I’d rather have a challenging job that I enjoy than an easy job that I hate. Don’t get me wrong, I treasure my time away from the office like anyone else, but I have learned that working hard and producing good work is part of who I am. I read somewhere this is not uncommon among Gen Xers like me.
I went into public relations in New York starting in 2001, and when I moved to Austin, I decided to take my event planning experience and start my own company, CLINK Events. I ran my company, which turned into a 17-year labor of love, and sold it in 2018. I’ve remained in events ever since. Coming full circle, I think my ability to write has been one of the most beneficial skills in my career. I am happy that has always been a common thread for me.
In the past, you’ve worn many different hats: journalism, event management and public relations. How has this confluence of experience helped you as executive director of the Wine & Food Foundation (WFF) today?
A friend sent me this job posting in the spring of 2020, and my immediate reaction was, “I don’t work in the nonprofit sector.” She said, “Just read it.” I was surprised to realize that my experience enabled me to check just about all the boxes in the required skills. WFF is an event-driven organization, so that part was easy.
While I hadn’t worked at a nonprofit before, I had planned many nonprofit gala fundraisers over the course of my career, and I also sat on the board of directors for another nonprofit for several years. It was kind of cool to realize that my somewhat odd path of journalism, public relations, business ownership, event production and nonprofit board experience was a pretty perfect match for what the Wine & Food Foundation needed. It’s been challenging, but that’s part of the fun of it. I feel really fortunate to have come into this role; this is a dream job for me and I love it.
What does the word, “hospitality” mean to you, and why is culinary education important for the Austin community?
Hospitality covers so many different things, but at the end of the day, it’s about service. It’s about how to take the best possible care of people—whether it’s wine, food, restaurant service, lodging or transportation; how can you make people feel happy?
Culinary education is important for two reasons because there are two different audiences. Over the years, people have become passionate wine and food enthusiasts—from wine tastings to budding home chefs. The people that attend our educational programming are hungry for content, and the amount of wine education is limitless.
We teach two wine classes per month, and we could teach two wine classes per day and still not run out of content. Educational programming is a great way to build a community. We are able to engage folks regularly through our membership programming and our events, which are open to anyone. We also invest in up-and-coming professionals, which in turn continues to elevate Austin’s ever-evolving wine and food scene. Through scholarships, we keep passion high and alive, making it better with every passing year. The more people we can support in their dreams to complete higher levels of viticultural and culinary education, the better the already great Austin wine and food scene will become.
Please expand upon the upcoming milestone the Wine & Food Foundation is celebrating this year.
WFF was incorporated in 1997; this is our 25th anniversary, but The Foundation actually started in 1985, so we’ve been around a long time. Our team and board are focused on embracing the integrity and storied history of this foundation while ensuring that we are focused on progress in the ever-evolving hospitality industry and the ever-evolving consumer community. Our community varies in wine knowledge from budding enthusiasts to highly knowledgeable connoisseurs. So we have to curate programming that can appeal to all segments of our community. For the folks who are newer to the wine world and/or want to brush up on the basics, we are offering a four-part wine 101 series. The classes are:
- How to talk about wine (wine vocabulary)
- How to buy wine
- How to taste wine
- How to pair wine: five-course, chef-curated wine pairing dinner
Our experienced wine community loves attending our annual Rare & Fine Wine Auction, the event for which we are most well-known. This year is the 36th annual RFW Auction. Our featured winemaker is Paul Hobbs, an extremely well-known Napa Valley wine producer.
The other announcement we made is the announcement of our 2023 auction beneficiary. Lift Collective advocates for diversity, equity and inclusion in the wine industry. We are proud to partner with Lift Collective for the second consecutive year. Our support enables Lift Collective to provide entrepreneurial grants to deserving people from underrepresented, sometimes overlooked communities. It aligns with our mission because we want to be a part of ensuring the top talent has a true path forward so that our communities can benefit from what they have to offer, to do our part in helping to diversify the industry.