Sustenance for the Cause

Durham chef Scott Howell has been throwing the annual "Nana's Dinner" to benefit the Duke Cancer Patient Support Program for so many years, he can’t quite remember how it got started.

He recalls that one of his regular customers at Nana’s, his upscale restaurant near Duke University, asked him about contributing to the program, which provides counseling, support groups, and other support services to Duke cancer patients and their families free of charge. “Rather than just donate a gift certificate, we decided to try to do something bigger,” Howell says.

For the first dinner, in 2000, Howell and his staff volunteered their time on a Sunday—normally their day off—to prepare a five-course meal with wine pairings. With the food and wine donated by the restaurant or its partners, all the ticket sales directly benefit the patient support program. The Nana’s team has been topping themselves every year since, and the dinner has grown so that it maximizes the capacity of the restaurant and kitchen. When Howell married Aubrey Zinaich-Howell four years ago, she joined him in the tradition.

For their efforts, the Duke Cancer Patient Support Program (DCPSP) has chosen the Howells as their 2015 Light of Hope honorees. “Scott and Aubrey’s generosity and personal dedication to helping families facing cancer has raised a significant amount of funding for the program,” says Cheyenne Corbett, PhD, LMFT, director of the program.

Scott’s mother is a long-term survivor of Hodgkin’s disease, and his stepfather also lives with cancer, as does Aubrey’s grandfather. Aubrey’s grandmother passed away from the disease. “Someone that you know and someone that you love is going to get cancer,” Aubrey says. “The dinner is a way for us to do what we can.”

And what they can do is create memorable meals. For many Durham residents, Nana’s Southern food with French and Italian influences is a go-to for special occasions. Some DCPSP supporters have never missed an annual Nana’s dinner. “We try to give them something that isn’t rubber chicken,” Scott says. “We do our food.”