Asked and Answered

 Lavinia Biasell on the Bench-Bar Culinary Challenge

By Steve Thorpe

The 7th Annual Bench-Bar Culinary Challenge, where a team of three judges goes up against three lawyers in a live grilling cook-off for charity, will be held this year on Thursday, June 12, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Grosse Pointe Park home of Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Kirsten Frank Kelly. Lavinia Biasell is a partner at Maddin, Hauser, Roth & Heller, P.C. and currently is co-chair of the Bench Bar Culinary Challenge Committee, which organizes the event. She is also on the board of directors of Life Remodeled, which is a nonprofit organization that remodels homes and schools. 


Thorpe: This the seventh year for the event and I think it’s fair to say it’s a big success. Some charity events just fade away. What’s the secret of this one?

Biasell: We have an amazing group of 14 women judges and lawyers who make up the Bench Bar Culinary Challenge Committee. Most of us have been on the committee since the first event back in 2008. We tweak the event every year depending on how things went the year before. We have a brainstorm session after each event. We change things, we add things. We’re flexible and open to new ideas. What people may not realize, however, is that none of us is required to participate in planning this event. We don’t belong to a particular organization or have a fundraising quota. We each do it because we are committed to these charities and believe that it is important for the legal community to be involved. As far as I know, there is no other event like this out there. There is no agenda other than raising the most money possible, while having a great time with our colleagues. Almost everything at the event has been donated or sponsored. The food is great thanks to our chefs and participating attendees. The wine exceeds expectations thanks to our yearly wine sponsor, Nesi & Associates. Our vacation raffle is a big hit and has been generously donated this year by Computing Source. From the tents to the chef jackets, just about everything has been paid for by the legal community and the women on the committee. A lot of hard work goes on behind the scenes to make this event happen, but seeing it all come together on the day of the event is worth it. Knowing that we are doing something that makes a difference is worth it.

Thorpe: Tell us about the origins of the event.

Biasell: The Culinary Challenge is the invention of my co-chair, Valerie Newman. Once upon a time, there was a women lawyers’ softball game that served the same purpose of raising money for local charities. Some of the women on our Bench Bar Culinary Challenge Committee played softball. Over the years, however, people lost interest in the game. Valerie came up with the idea of having an event that would mimic the popular Top Chef show on television. There was a lot of hesitation at first. Some of the women opposed the idea of a cooking event feeling that it was too stereotypical of women. Valerie, however, was able to help us envision what the event could be, and the first Culinary Challenge event was born in 2008 in the backyard of Judge Elizabeth Gleicher’s home. We raised about $5,000 that first year. I actually missed the event because I was on bed rest while I was pregnant with my daughter. I was raising money from my couch. In total, we’ve raised approximately $80,000 for the three charities that we support.

Thorpe: Who will be on the teams this year?

Biasell: Our grill teams are Grilled By The Hour (the lawyers) versus Grilled from the Bench (the judges). The lawyer chefs this year are Randi Glanz with Sous Chef Kaveh Kashef, Charlie Langton with Sous Chef Lisa Langton, and Joseph Shannon with Sous Chef Amy Purcell. The judge chefs this year are Judge Lita Popke with Sous Chefs Judge Maria Oxholm and Judge Patricia Fresard, Judge Mary Ellen Brennan with Sous Chef Referee Mark Sherbow, and Judge Matt Switalski with Sous Chef Justice Bridget McCormack. We anticipate at least 250 people will attend the event again this year and watch the showdown.

Thorpe: I’ve attended a couple of these and the woofing and trash talking between the competitors can get pretty intense. Don’t they know it doesn’t matter who wins?

Biasell: Oh, I would say that it does matter who wins. The chefs take the competition very seriously, especially the lawyers. They have won the live grill competition every year since we added that part to the event. Of course, it helps that the lawyers are allowed to solicit the attendees for votes. It definitely gives them the edge. There is no dispute, however, that some of the best dishes have been grilled by the judge teams. Every year there are rumors of grill teams trying to cheat. I am going to deny those allegations on the record.

Thorpe: Any candidates you can recall for most exotic dish?

Biasell: We have had delicious appetizers from the lawyers over the years and amazing desserts from the judges in the appetizer and dessert competitions. The big winners every year, though, are the grilled food items. Last year, Judges Wendy Potts and Colleen O’Brien made “Traverse City Chicken Sliders.” They were ground chicken patties with a cherry topping and goat cheese with an arugula garnish. Yum! The grill chefs work so hard during the event. For the most part, everyone keeps it tame because they want the crowd to vote for their dishes, from pork tenderloin to shrimp tacos to grilled portabella mushrooms. The food is definitely gourmet! The one dish, if you can call it that, which stands out in my mind from over the years is what I would call fruit art that was created by an attorney, Rob Cassar. He called it “Ode to Honorable Kirsten Frank Kelly.” You should check out the photo on our Facebook page He has talent.

Thorpe: Some very good causes benefit from the generosity of your volunteers and guests. Tell us about them.

Biasell: These charities were selected by the Committee because of what they provide for women and children in our community. Alternatives For Girls helps homeless and high-risk girls and young women make good choices by avoiding violence, teen pregnancy and exploitation. They give these girls and women the support that they need to live better and healthier lives. Crossroads for Youth serves at-risk children and youth. They believe that every child deserves a chance. They have a beautiful campus that provides a safe place for these children to deal with what is happening in their lives and grow into productive adults. The money that we donate to Women Lawyers Association of Michigan Foundation is used to provide scholarships to women law students. When I was in law school, I was the recipient of a scholarship from one of the WLAM chapters. So, I know firsthand how important these scholarships are for these young women law students.

Thorpe: If people want more information, how do they get it?

Biasell: If people want more information about the event, it’s very simple. They can contact me at or 248-351-7059, and I would be happy to forward them our invitation and sponsor form. They can visit us on our Facebook page at Or, they can talk to any of our Committee members who would be happy to brag about our fabulous and not to be missed event. We hope that people will help us with our goal this year of surpassing $100,000 in donations to the charities.