The Eat Up! Columbus fundraiser brings together the city's top chefs to fight human trafficking

Image courtesy Freedom a La Cart

You'll enter as strangers, and you'll leave as friends.

That's what Julie Clark, co-founder of Freedom a La Cart, promises those who attend Eat Up! Columbus.

The Nov. 15 fundraiser started as an unassuming underground supper club and has now become an annual event involving seven of Columbus' best chefs, including Chef Julian Menaged of The Market Italian Village, Chef Jessica Bryant of Pistacia Vera and more. They'll serve up hors d'oeuvres and a seven-course tasting menu with drink pairings starting at 6 p.m. at the St. Charles Preparatory School. A cocktail hour and silent auction will kick off the evening.

Eat Up!, put on by Freedom a La Cart, benefits the organization and its mission to mentor and employ local survivors of human trafficking.

"You're going to leave feeling transformed," Clark says. "You realize the importance of community."

Tickets are $150 each, or $1,500 for a ten-top, and are available at eatupcolumbus.org.

We talked with Clark, who's now the associate director of business development at Ologie, about human trafficking and how the Eat Up! event has grown.

-Taylor Starek, @taylorstarek

What did the first few Eat Up! events look like?

I come alive when I talk about Eat Up! I'm Italian, and on Sundays, my whole family would gather around this big table, and we would pour the wine and serve the food and talk for hours, and then you'd bring the bread around again for round two. So naturally in my life that's how I've done weekend suppers and brunches with friends. Lara [Yazvac] and Kae [Denino], the other Freedom founders, had been doing something similar their whole lives. I went to a Sundance Film Festival and there was a film about this underground supper club. I tried finding one in Columbus, and there was nothing going on. I was like, "Let's just decorate the inside of our offices [and have it here]." I had a friend build this 24-feet table of reclaimed wood. The key is to keep the table thin so that you're closer to your guests. We'd get the record player going. Lara was brilliant with the menus, and the three of us would execute in the kitchen. We had a couple survivors that had learned how to serve. We would just throw these parties, and they would sell out. We always said, "You enter as strangers, and you leave as friends."

How did it grow?

I think that's the nature of Doma and Freedom a la Cart. We like to invite people into the hullabaloo. We just loved seeing cuisine come to life with community. It was going to be a competition, like the show "Chopped." The chef of The Crest [Dustin Brafford] said, "It seems like the collaborative spirit of Freedom is something we need to keep for this event." So he started inviting his friends along. That's how it began.

Which chef's dish are you particularly excited about this year?

One of my favorite things to do is brunch. Skillet is my absolute favorite place to go, and I'm so excited to see what he'll do.

Why is this cause, fighting human trafficking, important to you?

My first trip when I was 14 years old to an orphanage [in Russia] really exposed me to the fact that there are a lot of human rights abuses in the world. I spent the next 20 years traveling back and forth to orphanages and working with people all over the globe in poverty. Human trafficking was something that was happening out of the orphanages in Russia. As I started to get more involved over the last decade here in America, it became very evident that it was happening here and it happens everywhere. Once I started to get to know a lot of the survivors here, you realize they look a lot like me, they act a lot like me. A lot of them have been trafficked in and out of homes all over, in and out of hotels all over our city. It became such an important thing to realize in our own backyard and to start to fight it and figure out some solutions. It was something I wanted Columbus to learn to not tolerate any longer.

What was your first exposure to human trafficking on the local level?

I had started fighting human trafficking in Colorado. I was educating people about the fact that this exists all over our globe. When I moved to Columbus, I really wanted the nonprofit that I had started, [Doma], to work locally. I was invited by people who knew of my passion for human trafficking to visit an alternative program for women escaping prostitution, CATCH Court. I got a chance to talk with them and hear their stories. When I sat in that courtroom, I wasn't sure if Doma was going to get involved, and Judge Herbert asked them, "How many of you guys have met your father?" Like three out of the 20 raised their hands. He asked how many of them were abandoned by their moms before they were age eight or so, and 80 percent of them raised their hands. He asked how many had children that they didn't have custody of. And, like, all of their hands shot up. I said, "Let's get involved."

How did Freedom a la Cart come about?

What happened was once we started raising money and building a support network for these women. They'd get two years in, and they couldn't get jobs. We were trying to figure out a way to start making money and put the survivors to work to help fund our other programs. Thistle Farms is an organization in Nashville that we went to visit to go learn from. And they all made candles and soap. On the way home, my friend Kae [Denino], another founder, said, "Well, what do we know?" And we really know food. We had worked in like 20-some restaurants between the two of us. When we got back, we just started making food and selling it and putting a couple of these girls to work. We started at the [Columbus] Flea. I think we made like $2,000 on our first sale.