The annual fundraiser of a food festival called Men R’ Cookin’ is sort of a who’s who of the Atlantic City area.

But the party, held Thursday at The Pool at Harrah’s Atlantic City, is more than that — because it also turns out to be a who-made-what of the Atlantic City area.

Men R’ Cookin’s 13th edition drew about 70 chefs, from eager amateurs to seasoned professionals, to make some of their specialty dishes as a way to help make money for the Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City.

Mekos Denson, the club’s executive director, said that by the end of the evening, he hoped the organization would feed about 700 guests — and raise $60,000 or $70,000, depending on how things went with a 50-50 raffle and other assorted money-makers.

And the Boys & Girls Club definitely needs that money for its mission of giving kids in the city a safe, healthy place to go when they’re not in school. The club announced last week that it had to close its clubhouse in the city’s Chelsea section for financial reasons.

“This is a vital part of what we’re trying to do to raise the money to get that building back open,” Denson said Thursday, shortly before the rest of the crowds started filtering in to The Pool to taste everything their chefs had made for them.

Denson called the proudly casual Men R’ Cookin’ “unique — definitely different from the old black-tie affair.”

And almost all the guests talked about how they were there to help a very good cause. But they were also there to eat, and to talk about who cooked what.

“We’re all reviewers,” said Christie Wiggins, of Egg Harbor Township, standing in the middle of a food-and-drink traffic jam in the entrance to The Pool with a group of her friends from Cape Bank.

Wiggins pronounced the calamari on her plate (from a chef she couldn’t identify) “tender and delicious,” but also spoke highly of the lobster macaroni and cheese from Steve & Cookie’s by the Bay, in Margate — and at a table right next to her group.

Cami Bonsera, with the same crowd, said the meatballs made by their Cape Bank co-worker, amateur chef Craig DeGenova, were “like nonna used to make” — using the Italian word for grandmother.

Inside at a comfortable table, Bob Ruffolo from Princeton Antiques & Books in Atlantic City was waiting for a recommendation on his next food move from his wife, Joyce. She arrived back at the family’s headquarters table very happy with the miniature surf and turf — jumbo shrimp and filet mignon on a toothpick, from Ruben Espinal, the executive sous-chef at Resorts Casino Hotel.

Bob Ruffolo was very comfortable in a sports shirt with an open collar — he said it was a major breakthrough recently when he had to put on a suit for a family wedding.

“It’s just a tremendous thing for the Boys & Girl’s Club’s success that they had to move to a venue like this,” said Ruffolo, father of four boys who grew up going to the club’s Chelsea unit — and who remembers when Men R’ Cookin’ used to pack a wall-to-wall crowd into the gym of its main building, on Pennsylvania Avenue.

To him, one of the keys to the event’s success is that “for the money, it’s one of the best bargains in town.”

Bill Hughes Jr., of Northfield, was far more formally dressed, in a suit and tie — maybe because he has announced that he’s a candidate for Congress this year. But he said he was at Men R’ Cookin’ to support the cause, and to support Ken Calemmo, a veteran amateur chef who happens to be chief operating officer of the Cooper Levenson law firm, where Hughes is a partner.

Ron and Yvonne Jordan, of Atlantic City, enjoy the casual side of Men R’ Cookin,’ though — and Ron enjoys telling his jealous son that he’s spending the night at the trendy Pool at Harrah’s.

“It’s always on the social calendar for the year,” Ron said, taking a break between bites. “It’s a must-attend event.”

Contact Martin DeAngelis:


Senior copy editor for the Press of Atlantic City. Have worked as a reporter, copy editor and news editor with the paper since 1985. A graduate of the University of Delaware.