BLOOMINGTON, Minn. –Taste of the NFL is coming home to Minnesota for its premier party on the eve of Super Bowl LII and gaining steam leading up to the main event. The organization for the first time is holding four fundraising dinners to raise support before "Taste of the NFL Comes Home" on Feb. 3. The third dinner in the series was held on Nov. 18 at the Sheraton Hotel in Bloomington.
Wayne Kostroski, founder of Taste of the NFL, is a longtime chef and native Minnesotan. He said it's been thrilling to have the charity event return to the Twin Cities 26 years after the first Taste of the NFL was held in Minneapolis in 1992.
"I kind of say in sports vernacular that we've got home-field advantage this year, which is great," Kostroski said Saturday evening. "I've been in the restaurant business here for more than 35 years, so I know a few people, as opposed to Houston or San Francisco. Doing the series of events is really special.
"I've lived in this community for 28 years now. My kids grew up here, went to school here," Kostroski added. " 'Taste of the NFL Comes Home' is kind of the closing of a big circle from 1992."
Kostroski, 2010 James Beard Humanitarian of the Year, welcomed a room full of guests to a five-course dinner prepared by an elite lineup of chefs: Stewart Woodman (Lela), Thomas Boemer (Revival, Corner Table), Chris Ulrich (Mucci's Italian) and Los Angeles-based Steve Samson (Sotto Restaurant).
In addition to fine dining and wine pairings, guests had the opportunity to mingle, snap photos with and receive autographs from former NFL players. Vikings Legends Paul Krause, Chuck Foreman, Jim Marshall, Leo Lewis and Bob Lurtsema were joined by former cornerback Dre' Bly, who played for four teams during his career. Mike Veeck, co-owner of the Saint Paul Saints, also was recognized as a special guest.
Matt Birk, former Vikings Pro Bowler and current NFL Director of Football Development, served as the evening's emcee.
"It's something that started here in Minnesota; it was just an idea," Birk said of Taste of the NFL. "Wayne … used his talents and his connections and applied them to a mission, a cause, and here we are  years later – $25 million, 200 million meals. It's incredible."
Kostroski is a longtime friend of Birk, who was introduced to the food guru through his uncle years ago.
"My Uncle Mark said, 'Wayne's an unbelievable guy,' and he is," Birk said. "To have known Wayne for as long as I have and to be able to support him and his cause, and for him to involve so many people in this fight – he's one of those guys where you can't say 'no' to him because you see how passionate he is."
Birk shares Kostroski's goal for ending food insecurity and said that while it's disheartening to see the abundance of food wasted across the U.S., what it means for finding a solution is encouraging.
"It's very hopeful that this problem can be solved – because all it really takes is money," Birk explained. "We don't need to find a cure, we don't need to do medical research, it just takes [funds]. Wayne and his team, all the chefs who donate all their time, these people who love food [and are] passionate about bringing it to people and using their time and their talents for things bigger than themselves."
The Taste of the NFL terms itself "the Super Bowl's only Party with a Purpose." All proceeds from the event benefit food banks in each of the 32 NFL cities, with special emphasis placed on the host city food bank.
Leading up to Super Bowl LII, all proceeds from the four-dinner series will go directly to Second Harvest Heartland, a nonprofit organization that delivers meals to local families who need them.
Second Harvest Heartland CEO Rob Zeaske expressed gratitude to the Vikings for a lengthy partnership.
"We could not do our local work without them," Zeaske said. "The visibility they bring, certainly their support for our child-hunger programs, has been fantastic. Between their many on-site appearances as well as their annual Taste of the Vikings event, we're delighted to continue our work with the Vikings to help reach more hungry neighbors in our community."
In addition to the ticket sales and proceeds from merchandise sales Saturday evening, Kostroski auctioned off a pair of donated tickets to the Rams-Vikings game on Nov. 19. He also included two tickets to the final fundraising dinner that will take place on Jan. 18 in Minneapolis.
Kostroski said the Vikings have been "nothing short of exemplary" in their support of combatting hunger in the Minnesota community. The Taste of the NFL founder has worked with ownership from all 32 clubs and emphasized that the Wilf Family Ownership sets itself apart.
"This is not because we're standing here in Minnesota today, but this Vikings organization is the real deal," Kostroski said. "This is a first-rate, quality organization.
"I've been blessed personally to know a lot of people in the Vikings organization – players and former players – and that's why the cherry on top of this is that it is coming home. The energy here is amazing," added Kostroski, who said the Minnesota event sold out faster than any previous Taste of the NFL.
Kostroski said that the very first Taste of the NFL showed people across the country what Minnesota is made of – "it's cold, but it's very warm because of the people" – and that he's confident the 2017 extravaganza will blow year one out of the water.
"This is going to top that by a few levels," Kostroski said. "It's a good time to be a proud Minnesotan, because this is going to be pretty cool."
Taste of the NFL's ****Kick Hunger Challenge*** is an annual fundraising competition that encourages fans from all 32 NFL markets to raise money for their favorite NFL team's local food bank.*