Who the hell is Billy Harris? You will ask yourself this while scrolling Instagram when his slicked-up head of black hair, oversized onyx glasses and a suit and tie that match it all find their way into your timeline. You will ask yourself this when you see the man with a microphone or glass of chilled riesling or a bucatini-wrapped fork in hand, lounging and laughing with every celebrated chef in America at another one of his feasts in L.A. or New York. The question remains unanswered as you hear of Billy Harris’s exclusive dinner series, which often features the godly likes of Evan Funke, Adam Perry Lang, Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller, ranging from $175 to $475 a seating. The last few weeks alone featured Nancy Silverton, Zach Pollack and Geoffrey Zakarian. They always benefit charity, and tickets always go fast.
Maybe you saw Billy as an auctioneer, helping raise over half a million dollars at L.A.’s A-list food charity event of the year, Alex’s Lemonade. You may have watched him hosting the culinary competition and pig paradise known as Cochon555, or it might have been L.A.’s annual fall-into-a-meat-coma-celebration Beefsteak. And if you missed those, there’s a chance you were in the audience at the most recent Michelin or James Beard Awards and wondered who the hell is Billy Harris?
Needing an answer, I ask the man himself over schmear and scrambled eggs at Nate ‘n Al . I learn about his family’s vaudevillian roots and how a career in stand-up led to hosting corporate gigs in Vegas when he wasn’t old enough to gamble away his salary. He tells me how a Sin City relationship with legendary mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim led to meeting Mario Batali in the post-Po, pre-Molto Mario days, and how that friendship landed Billy inside the Melrose Avenue juggernaut Lucques on opening night, hugging Suzanne Goin hello for what would be the first of endless hugs that continue to this day. The very next night it was the first of endless hugs from Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger inside Border Grill. It would continue like this as the corporate gig bookings grew, and when friend and ex-Food Network executive Joe Allegro left his post to start philanthropic work for No Kid Hungry, Billy was brought in as an auctioneer for the charity’s dinner series. It was during this decade, surrounded by chefs and working to eradicate child hunger, the concept for his own charitable, chef-focused dinner series and auction would take shape.
The bagel-and-schmear breakfast came to a close. I still hadn’t figured out who the hell Billy Harris is.
Days later, back on Instagram and scrolling for the answer, a realization formed: If I’m not seeing photos of Billy in one of the country’s best restaurants, it’s because I’m seeing photos of him with with his wife and daughter swimming in their home’s chlorine waters below the Hollywood Sign, or they’re all forming sesame seaweed rice balls together at David Chang’s Majordōmo. And if he’s not at home or on the road eating, then I’ll probably find him under the Hollywood Sign once again, hiking with his dog Emmy, whom I could swear was Westminster-trained to pose for iPhone photography.
I meet Billy and Emmy on the hike, where he’s walking off the previous night’s black-truffle-and-brioche-stuffed chicken from his friends Daniel and Will of NoMad. We marvel at his upcoming dinner series lineups in L.A. and NYC, and he expresses genuine passion about raising money for No Kid Hungry through auctions at those private dinners, helping bring 775 million meals to one in six children in America facing hunger. And he still hadn’t answered who the hell Billy Harris is, so when he invites me to the first night of his L.A. dinner series at Nancy Silverton’s chi SPACCA, I say yes in what feels like milliseconds.
I finally find the answer days later at chi SPACCA as a jazz soundtrack plays, and surrounded by 40 guests who all paid $330 to hang with Billy and Nancy Silverton as they all scarf salted Medjool dates, grilled octopus, olive-oil-doused bistecca Fiorentina and square slices of the famed focaccia di Recco. And while up-close-and-personal moments with a James Beard Award winner and the star of Chef’s Table coupled with a curated German wine pairing keeps everyone warm and floating through the family-style meal, I realize I’m finally inside Billy’s Instagram posts, laughing and lounging in one of the best restaurants with one of the most celebrated chefs, all in the name of charity and the love of food and how it connects us to one another. It’s surreal. It feels good. And Billy wants to add something special to the night’s upcoming auction, so he raises a playful eyebrow at his friend Nancy, who’s busy signing cookbooks for everyone to take home, and she happily agrees to host two separate burger cookouts in her backyard for the winning bidders and 20 of their friends. Billy assures every guest of the sold-out-in-record-time-event, “I’ve eaten her burgers. Trust me, you want this.”
When all the meat and wine are gone, and macchiatos and piccolo lattes are joined by Meyer lemon gelato pie with a champagne vinegar sauce, Billy grips the microphone again—he swears he was born holding one—and the auction for No Kid Hungry begins. Ten minutes later, he’s secured $22,000 in winning bids for everything from Shake Shack gift certificates and a magnum of San Pellegrino to a five-figure-price-tagged William Sonoma kitchen set and those Nancy-grilled burgers. There are 19 Billy Harris dinner series auctions in 2018 directly benefiting child hunger in America. “You do the math,” he tells me matter-of-factly as the night comes to a close.
He’s on a food mission, a man who makes sure everyone within his grasp is fed, elated and connected to one another. That’s who the hell Billy Harris is. Of course there’s nothing like experiencing Billy’s Instagram feed from the inside, out, so buy a ticket to an upcoming dinner in one of the best restaurants in L.A., eat as well as you’ve ever eaten in your life for one of the greatest causes you’ve ever supported, and meet the man with the epically thick, slicked-up head of black hair. It’s worth it.
Upcoming chefs of the Billy Harris Dinner Series include Roy Choi, April Bloomfield, Evan Funke, Jon & Vinny and more.