On Oct. 17, the Piehole Project, a scholarship program for up-and-coming culinary students, opened their annual silent auction for Austin.
By Cy White
The lord or lady who first coined the phrase, “Put your money where your mouth is” probably wasn’t challenging the person to whom it was directed to a pie-eating contest. However, over a century after becoming a popular turn of phrase to charge people to do as they say, it appears to have come full circle. Created in Dallas by hospitality industry vets Alison Matis and Cheryl Weis, the Piehole Project has provided burgeoning chefs the opportunity to realize their dreams. Taking the form of a silent auction on–you guessed it–unique pies, the scholarship has raised several thousands of dollars for students eager to enter the food and hospitality industries. The scholarship has landed in Austin, with a goal of raising $40,000 for local students. Matis and Weis took some time to answer questions about their vision, their journey and the future of the Piehole Project.
Please introduce yourself to our readers.
AM: I’m Alison, I’m the co-founder of FestEvents Group and Foundation and co-creator of the Piehole Project. I graduated from culinary school, but my career focus has been outside of the kitchen in F&B operations, mostly for hotels. My husband is the chef de cuisine for Fearing’s. We have one daughter, Charlotte.
CW: Hello, I’m Cheryl. My background is in IT project management for Accenture and TXU Energy, but I’ve always wanted to be in the culinary world. I got a two-year degree from Le Cordon Bleu in Dallas, focusing on culinary arts! I started the event planning business, met Alison and here we are. My husband and I live in Dallas with our two fur babies.
What was the inspiration behind the Piehole Project?
AM: We both enjoyed our time in culinary school and were fortunate enough to be able to pay for it without incurring much debt. We met others in our respective programs who didn’t have the same financial backing, so we brainstormed a fundraiser.
CW: With our experience in food festivals, we tried to think of fun ways to raise money for scholarships that included chefs but didn’t require a large time, food or financial commitment from chefs/restaurateurs in general but also in the middle of the pandemic. It all came together.
Piehole Project was created in the midst of a pandemic. How did you manage to create such a major fundraising event?
AM: The culinary industry really came together in so many ways during the pandemic. The Dallas food community was already working together to help each other out; the vast majority of our support came from the industry.
CW: It was always going to be a virtual auction since everything back then was held virtually. We had great partners with Dallas College, our sponsors and chefs and everyone was eager to be involved.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of this event? The most challenging?
CW: We review all of the scholarship applications and then meet the recipients. They are so grateful for the support. Very few people get into the restaurant industry to “get rich and famous.” These students have a passion, talent and a need. It feels good to help them.
AM: While Cheryl is more focused on the scholarship aspect of the Piehole Project, I work more directly with the chefs. It’s so inspiring to see their creativity and to give them an opportunity to create something that is unique that might not be part of their typical restaurant menu.
Both: The most challenging is breaking into a new market. The Austin chefs were thrilled to participate. But the media has been slower to respond. (So, thank you, Austin Woman!)
Can you talk a bit about the collaboration with August Escoffier School of Culinary Arts?
CW: When we were considering which city to bring the Piehole Project to next, we looked at the culinary scene and the opportunities for local students to attend school and support the industry at the same time. Austin was perfect. When we talked to Escoffier, they were thrilled to work with us to help their students.
As the Piehole Project gets bigger and bigger every year, are there other schools and/or organizations that you’d like to bring in?
AM: We have big goals for Piehole Project and would definitely like to expand into other cities and get more students more scholarships. We can grant scholarship funds to students who attend any accredited culinary, pastry or hospitality program and at college, university or trade school. We’ve granted to Dallas College, Johnson & Wales and University of North Texas.
CW: We will continue to develop our chef and sponsor network to grow the Piehole Project. Our goal this year is to raise $40,000 to grant 10 $4000 scholarships. I’d love to double that each year.
What have been some of the most impressive creations over the two years of the Piehole Projects?
Both: While we would never admit to having a favorite pie, we’ve been blown away by the creativity of our participating chefs. We’ve seen spaghetti pie, foie gras pie, grapefruit paloma pie, matcha custard tart and many reiterations of traditional fruit pies that only chefs could dream up.
Sky’s the limit, what is your biggest dream for Piehole Project?
AM: I’d like to take the Piehole Project national.
CW: To have all of our scholarship recipients graduate from culinary school, become a top chef and create an amazing pie for us.
What can we expect from this event in the future?
AM: Certainly, you can expect more chefs and more pies. We also have a live event component in January in Dallas. It will be an ’80s concert with chefs, buffets and live entertainment. I think we could have live events compliment online auctions in each city.
What do you want to be the lasting impression of the Piehole Project?
CW: That there is value and honor to being a hospitality worker; that getting a culinary or hospitality management degree is important to elevating your career and income. We are focused on workforce development and genuinely want to help the industry we love.
AM: Thank you for featuring us. We really want the Austin auction to be a huge success. We are so grateful for the amazing chefs like Aurora Torrado, Amanda Turner, Aaron Franklin and Philip Speer who said yes to our request and came up with killer pies. We appreciate you getting the word out.
The Piehole Project silent auction is going on now through Oct. 27. To find out how you can participate visit the Piehole Project official website.