Dr. John to headline Mardi Gras gala to raise money for New Orleanians in need

Bal Masque -- Link Stryjewskie Foundation
Guests view a video at the Link Stryjewski Foundation Bal Masque at the Orpheum Theatre. Satuday, January 9, 2016. (Josh Brasted Photo)

A night of black ties, gowns, ornate masks and costumes, along with food from top chefs and Dr. John's music come together Saturday (Jan. 7) at the Orpheum Theater to make New Orleans a better place.

The second annual Bal Masque gala -- the biggest fundraiser for the Link Stryjewski Foundation -- raises money for organizations, such as Roots of Music, Youth Empowerment ProjectGrow Dat Youth Farm and Kingsley House.

Tickets are $1,000 and available through the foundation's website.

"When you look at the ticket price, it's not really a ticket you are buying, you're donating money to some great causes," said Donald Link, who with partner Stephen Stryjewski started the foundation.

"We gave out $150,000 last year," he said. "We focus our efforts and our money and our time on anything to do with childhood development in New Orleans. Our goal is to help different youth organizations to prepare these kids for the real work, to give them a place that is safe to get off the streets."

For Link and Stryjewski, the foundation's work has been an education of sorts.

"I wish I could take everybody, in groups of five, to some of these organizations, so they can get down there and see that's where there money is going," Link said.

"That's what we do," Link said of himself and his employees. "I want to see it because it inspires me."

The Roots of Music is an example of that effort, Stryjewski said. That organization picks children up from dozens of schools and offers an after-school program that features music lessons as well as snacks, tutoring and a hot meal.

Link stressed, however, that foundation does not just write a check. The chefs and their staffs have worked in the fields at Grow Dat, cooked a fundraising dinner for Roots of Music and the foundation checks in throughout the year to meet immediate cash needs.

Last spring, the group donated money for summer camps programs at Kingsley and YEP.

"We've got to have community role models," he said, noting that the summer camp program puts teen counselors in direct contact with children in need.

"You see it working and these counselors are getting paid, so it's a job for them," he said. "It's a beautiful thing.

The foundation began because the chefs wanted to ensure that their charitable work was going directly to vetted organizations doing solid work.

"We've been doing random things for years," Link said. "We've done a few of these food and wine festivals that claim to be for charity and aren't," he said. "We started thinking and said what is the point of this. We're putting out all of this effort, all of our time, our staff's time and what impact is it really making.

"We have 350 employees now," Link said. "This is a way for us to be really involved in our community, for our team to be involved in our community."

Link and Stryjewski are partners in the Link Restaurant Group, which includes: Cochon, 930 Tchoupitoulas St.; Cochon Butcher, 930 Tchoupitoulas St.; Herbsaint, 700 St. Charles Ave.; and are partners with Ryan Prewitt at Peche, 800 Magazine St. Link also owns La Boulangerie, 4600 Magazine St.

"Mostly what kids need is some mentorship in the community and that costs money," he said.

"It's not so much that (the young people) are doing graphic design, or working in a bike shop or planting vegetables, it's more they are doing it with someone who is closer to their age and has been through it.... Someone that makes them feel important and feel like they have a place in this world and that they have value," Link said.

"If they don't' feel that, then they are going to go to the other side," he said. "That's what we're trying to stop - is this trek to the dark side."

On Saturday night, however, the focus will be on good food, good drink and good music.

"We do their events and they are coming down to do ours," Link said of the chefs from who will cook for the gala. They include: John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford, Miss.; Suzanne Goin of Lucques in Los Angeles; Paul Kahan of Publican in Chicago; Mike Lata of FIG in Charleston, S.C.; Nancy Oakes of Prospect in San Francisco; Richard Reddington of Redd in Yountville, Calif.; Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill, N.C.; as well as pastry chef Maggie Scales of La Boulangerie in New Orleans.

New York City chef Mario Batali is cooking a Twelfth Night feast for high-dollar donors on Friday at Calcasieu private dining rooms, another of Links' properties. Tickets are available.

And, the chefs feel the pressure of meeting the expectations of the $1,000 ticket for the ball where black tie or costumes are required and skeletons and the Carnival groups, such as the Marie Antoinettes, mingle with the revelers.

"When you think about decorations for the party, people are great decorations," Link said of the 2016 enthusiastic crowd.

Jimmy Buffett performed in 2016. This year, Dr. John headlines.

"If we're going to charge premium price, we want to provide A-list entertainment," Stryjewski said, noting that along with Dr. John and the Nite Trippers, Big Sam's Funky Nation, Cha Wa Indians and The Roots of Music will perform.

"His music is perfect for this," Link said of Dr. John. "It's so distinctively Mardi Gras.... New Orleans has got that thing that hangs in the air and he seems to embody that so well."

Still, the chefs want revelers to remember that behind the glittering gala is a serious purpose.

"This year, I'd like to hit $500,000, but I have a feeling we'll hit $400,000," Link said, noting that he's excited about the impact that that money could have on individual children's lives.

"This city has a multitude of needs," Stryjewski said.

BAL MASQUE

What: A masked ball, featuring Dr. John, with food from top chefs around the country. Black-tie or costume required.
Where: Orpheum Theater, 129 Roosevelt Way.
When: Saturday (Jan. 7) at 7 p.m.
Tickets: Tickets to the gala are $1,000 and proceeds benefit the Link Stryjewski Foundation. Buy tickets through LinkStryjewski.org. or call 504.588.2189, extension 5.