A philanthropic club is helping to breathe new life into the world of salons, with its own members hosting creative and inspirational events. Charlotte Eagar reports.
Watching Yossi Elad cook for 40 people was surprisingly smeary — rather like seeing Jackson Pollock paint. One of Jerusalem’s, and now London’s, most distinguished and experimental chefs, Yossi has just opened another restaurant, the Palomar in Soho, which has already appeared in the the Michelin Bib Gourmand guide.
Yossi spread a twenty-foot table with tin foil and wiped on to its gleaming surface hummus, scattered with pomegranate seeds, in great arcs of beige and ruby red. He got out a cleaver and hacked swiftly at raw tuna, fanning its garnet flesh in slices among the hummus. That night Yossi wasn’t in his restaurant, he was cooking in a converted loft in Covent Garden whose 40-foot cement walls were hung with works of Contemporary art. He ripped up pale discs of flat Middle Eastern bread and flung gleaming globs of olive oil over the foil in great, green-gold arcs — before an audience of 40 or so, in suits straight from the office or cocktail dresses, perched on those little gold chairs that go from London party to London party.
While the audience sat drooling, fifteen feet from the feast slathered on to the silver table, Yossi was interrogated by the social historian, Theodore Zeldin, former warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and a regular compère of these events. He was being asked about Chefs for Peace, an NGO Yossi helped to found in Jerusalem in 2000, with other Christian, Jewish and Muslim chefs. It aims to bring people together through food, regardless of their religious or political persuasions.
This was the Christmas Salon of the Cornucopia Club. The club has been running its salons every two months for the past four years — largely, like Yossi’s, in members’ homes. The Cornucopia Giving Circle, as it’s formally known, is the sociable branch of Prospero World, a boutique philanthropic advisory service founded in 2008 which identifies and then monitors, good causes to which for the cash-rich and time-poor can donate.
‘Cornucopia’s salons bring together people who are interested in philanthropy, but in a stimulating intellectual environment,’ says Sita Schutt, the founder of both Prospero World and Cornucopia who presides over the salons. ‘London’s full of events, but a salon is different. They are held in people’s private houses, or special places.’
Among the salons I’ve attended over the past few years was one about helping underprivileged children use software to interest them in birdsong, held in an exquisite 17th-century house in Kensington belonging to Richard and Lucille Briance. Richard is the founder of PMB Capital and is on the board of the philanthropic think-tank the Legatum Institute. Lucille, his New Yorker wife, is founder of a charity, the London Children’s Ballet. The speaker, Rosie Johnson, Spectator columnist Alexander Chancellor’s niece, described taking children on trips to the fens, then recorded guests at the party imitating various birds and speeded the recordings up, in order to show what they did with the children.
I’ve also been to a salon on ‘The Catastrophe of Everyday Life’ in the Themes & Variations gallery on Westbourne Grove, where the speaker was Professor Matthew Gumpert of Bogazici University, Istanbul, and weatherman Michael Fish was in attendance. (‘We thought it would be fun to ask someone whose job is to predict catastrophes,’ says Sita.) I’ve even hosted a screening of a documentary about our own Queens of Syria refugee drama therapy project, at Working Title for Cornucopia. I’ve met captains of industry, tech-geek-lords, and aid workers, financiers and hedge-fund wives who had their own demanding careers before marriages and money took over and are looking for interesting, worthy causes in which to involve themselves. I’ve even met the occasional beautiful, brainy adventuress. But everyone you meet has one thing in common — they are looking for something else to life beyond the bottom line.
‘We’re open to anybody, as long as they sponsor our work,’ says Sita. Cornucopia’s growing popularity mirrors the rise in the philanthropic culture in Britain in the past fifteen years. There are various thoughts about why this should be: one is that philanthropy is big in the US and seen by those on the make as a key part of professional and social advancement. As US working practices are absorbed by us, so are their philanthropic ones. Others point out that the British were philanthropic in the days of Lord Shaftesbury; post-World War II, post-Empire, the old rich had rather less spare cash, and the NHS and welfare state made philanthropy seem less pressing. Now, with new generations of the monied elite springing up in financial services, for some it feels like there’s more money to spare.
Since last September Cornucopia has been hosting ‘Around the World in Eight Salons’. It launched this season with a Globe to Globe Hamlet salon — the extraordinary undertaking of the recently departed artistic director of the Globe Theatre, Dominic Dromgoole, to produce Hamlet in 200 countries in two years. The salon was held at the Globe in Southwark. ‘It was amazing,’ says Sita. ‘We had the director. And a couple of actors from the Globe Hamlet talking about what it was like performing Hamlet in Egypt or Somaliland. If they did it in a proper theatre, then they had surtitles, but if it was in a village they had a translator at the same time. In St Kitts, one of the audience members got really angry with Hamlet! Apparently he said, “Dat’s no way to talk to your muddah!”’
‘Cornucopia was certainly the least sterile or predictable and much the most fun event we’ve done,’ says Dromgoole. ‘Some of the audience were interested in Somalia and Pakistan; others wanted to know about how we made the logistics work; others were interested in political and social sensitivities. Some were hoping to carry on helping and interacting; a few wanted to come to the performance in Denmark. It would be great if they gave us enormous amounts of money, but engagement will do.’
‘We have a no-fundraising rule at the salons,’ says Sita. ‘We don’t bring people there to be harassed for money. But maybe they will be inspired.’
Half-German, slim and dark, a fiercely chic former academic who trained as a ballerina at Geneva’s Conservatoire Populaire, Sita is a child of the UN. She read English at Oxford in the late 1990s and did a PhD on the 19th-century origins of the detective story in London. She gave up teaching at Ankara’s prestigious Bilkent University to go to India to work for the Veerni Project, an NGO dedicated to education for adolescent girls in Rajasthan. She then migrated to Notting Hill in 2007. Jacqueline de Chollet, the Swiss-American philanthropist and founder of the Veerni Project, then invited Sita to join the board of the Global Foundation for Humanity, which supports philanthropic projects worldwide. As a result, Sita started to work as consultant for philanthropists who wanted to find small NGOs doing good work on the ground.
‘On a trip to Africa I bought a little video camera and started filming everyone I met and everything I saw,’ she recalls. ‘I got a friend to edit the film and when I got back I did a showing in a little pub Bloomsbury and gave a cocktail party in my flat. There were five major donors in that little pub. Three of those projects got major funding right there and then.’
Sita has essentially created Cornucopia in her own mosaic image. The salon on the future of prisons, for example, included an Old Bailey judge and former bank robber Thomas Carrigan, whom Sita befriended after meeting him in a café outside the British Museum. ‘He was star of the show: He gave incredible insights into what it was like being in prison. Now he helps build playgrounds in Iraq. He’s also got a book deal.’
If the speaker does not have a charitable cause of their own, Cornucopia will pair their talk with a suitable cause. Cornucopia recently held a salon on water shortages, where the key speaker was one of the world’s leading hydrologists, Ghislain de Marsily, from the French Académie des Sciences. ‘He came from Paris specially,’ says Sita, ‘and gave a brilliant talk on the world’s water deficit and what it means.’ The water-deficit talk was paired with an NGO called 1001 Fontaines. ‘It’s a fantastic French social enterprise which works in Cambodia and India,’ says Sita. ‘They have a brilliant model to create and distribute pure drinking water to people in rural areas using an ultraviolet light purification system. They’ve won all sorts of prizes recently.’
Cornucopia works on word of mouth. It has a suggested donation of £1,000 per person, but Sita is quick to clarify, lest they fall foul of the Charity Commission, that ‘the food and drink are always sponsored’.
Richard Briance, who sits on the board of several charities, has been a member for several years. ‘I was asked to join by two people I respect, one of whom was Sita,’ he says. The other was a major hedge-fund player. ‘I love the idea of salons — a very nice and ancient idea. It had sort of died out. I think the idea of salons around a theme — arts, literature, in this case philanthropy — is attractive.’ On the birdsong salon he hosted, he recalls: ‘I was asked to. It’s fun. I like a party and I have a house that lends itself to entertaining.’
Lucille Briance described hosting the evening as ‘painless’: ‘They brought everything in, like a caterer. They arranged everything. We can host a hundred people here. But there was no work, except I made sure the house was clean and tidy.’
The evening was sponsored by John D Wood, the estate agent. The financier who hosted Yossi’s Christmas feast (who doesn’t want to be named) said the same: ‘Although my housekeeper felt she had to re-clean the kitchen. But then she has incredibly high standards.’ In certain circles there is now a cachet to being asked to host a Cornucopia salon. It shows your house is large — and nice — enough.
Most importantly, however, Cornucopia’s regulars, wired into their emails, hopping from meeting to meeting and continent to continent, feel it offers a chance to envelop themselves in something life-affirming, far removed from the source of their wealth.
‘You might hear about something on Radio 4, or in a documentary, but that doesn’t let you engage, to ask questions,’ said the host of Yossi’s Christmas salon. ‘Cornucopia allows you to ask back, to discuss it, and then ask, “What can I do to help?”’