Photo of chef Nate dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and baseball hat standing in front of a bar with a wall full of whisky behind him.

How two childhood friends are using good food to help sick kids

Chefs With Hart’s pizza parties and restaurant takeovers raise funds for children with intestinal failure

Nate Middleton and Daniel Bernier don’t remember exactly when they met, but they know it must have been on the ice. Only five or six years old at the time, the two tried out for the same hockey team in Stratford, Ont., and became instant friends.

Fast-forward a couple dozen years and the two men had lost touch. Middleton was the chef at Home of the Brave, a diner-inspired restaurant on King Street West in Toronto, and Bernier was a special needs teacher in the GTA with a very sick son. Hartley was born with a rare and life-threatening condition called intestinal failure, which means he can’t properly digest or absorb nutrients from food. Now nine, Hart (as he’s known to friends and family), has always needed an IV to keep him nourished and hydrated. He’s had 19 surgeries to date and must consume 4,000 calories a day. That’s a whole lot of calories for anyone, let alone a young boy.

When Middleton heard about what his childhood friend was going through, he knew he had to help. He just wasn’t sure how. “At that moment, I wasn’t strong enough as a person to contribute or help out in any way, but it was always in the back of my mind,” he says. “But by last year, I had enough confidence and friendships in the industry to start a conversation with Dan and see if there was something we could do to help.”

The answer, unsurprisingly, was food. Bernier and his wife, Ashley, had recently launched Chefs With Hart, a charity that organizes events to raise funds—and give Hartley a chance to explain his condition. Chefs offer up their restaurants and volunteer their services, and Hartley and his brothers sell Chefs with Hart merchandise. They donate all the money they make—$40,000 last year—to the Group for Improvement of Intestinal Function and Treatment at SickKids hospital, which provides lifesaving care for infants with the disorder. But they didn’t have a lot of experience throwing food events. Middleton, on the other hand, did. He had been throwing pizza parties at restaurants across the GTA and realized that he could use this model—and his connections in the food industry—to help Hart.

Venues vary—sometimes, Chefs With Hart throws pizza parties, where they take over a restaurant (Pizzeria Libretto, for example) and bring a group of chefs together to make pies. Other events have included a holiday partnership with Sweet Jesus ice cream shops and a restaurant takeover at Ground Burger Bar and Snack Markt in Newmarket.

In addition to participating in events, “Nate has been someone who has given us advice and council about executing culinary events, something that was initially foreign territory for [our family],” Bernier says. “More than that, he has tried to understand Hart’s complex illness, and been a sweetheart to our sons… he’s totally Uncle Nate!”

Middleton and Hart’s special bond inspires both to keep spreading awareness and raising funds. “We talk big dreams all the time,” says Middleton. For Hart, that means telling everyone about intestinal failure. He’s sure that if people really knew what kids like him go through, they’d want to help. And of course, he wants to, “raise money to help Dr. Wales [his doctor] help kids like him.”

If you’d like to use food to raise funds for your favourite cause, Middleton’s chocolate chunk cookies should be your new go-to bake sale idea.

freshly baked cookies cooling on a metal tray next to a bowl of chocolate chunks and two plates holding cookies

Photography By Matt Gibson for Sprig Creative

Chocolate Chunk Cookies

6 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
2-1/4 cups unsalted butter, melted
3 cups packed brown sugar
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
3 tbsp vanilla extract
6 cups chopped dark chocolate, or chocolate chips

1. In large bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, and salt; set aside.
2. In separate large bowl, whisk together butter, brown sugar and granulated sugar.
3. Whisk in eggs, one at a time, and vanilla.
4. Stir in flour mixture until just incorporated. Do not overmix.
5. Using a spatula, stir in the chocolate. (“It will look like too much chocolate, but don’t worry, it’s all gonna be aight,” Middleton says)
6. Shape into 2 tbsp balls, flattening slightly. Arrange cookies on parchment paper-lined rimmed baking sheet leaving about 3 inches between each.
7. Bake in 350F oven until golden and no longer shiny, about 15 min. Leave to sit on baking sheet for 3 minutes; transfer to cooling rack.

(Food and prop styling by Sprig Creative)

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