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Benefit for late Bay Ridge chef will happen as planned

Two weeks after his untimely death, chef and Bay Ridge resident Russell Titland will be memorialized at an event that had been planned as a benefit to help defray the cost of his medical care.

The fundraiser will take place at the Wicked Monk, 9510 Third Avenue, on Sunday, January 31 and will serve not only to help raise money for his family to help with funeral costs but also as a memorial for a man who was not only a great chef but also a beloved friend.

Titland, who was 47 when he succumbed to the disease, was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer about three years ago, but continued to work until his health declined this past November.

After Titland’s death, organizers of the event immediately knew they wanted to continue it, changing it from simply a fundraiser to a celebration of his life.

“The benefit is still happening,” said Thomas Harkins, who had been friends with the accomplished chef since childhood. “We knew from day one that it might very well be a memorial.”

Photo courtesy of Mike Beitchman
Photo courtesy of Mike Beitchman

Titland always had a love for the culinary arts.

“Early in his career, he was a cook before he was a chef, working at restaurants like the Silver Rail, Griswold’s Pub and Skinflints,” said fellow chef and long-time friend Peter Sullivan. “Russell arguably ascended to a higher level than anyone I can think of in Bay Ridge.”

Titland attended the Culinary Institute of America, where he quickly made a name for himself. “One of his friends described him as the rock star of the group and that he was the most advanced and talented student in his class and that was true,” Sullivan said.

Titland subsequently worked at the River Café where he cooked under David Burke, one of the top chefs in the country. However, later in life, he found his way back to Bay Ridge, taking a job as a chef at several local eateries. “There was never a guy before Russell in Bay Ridge who had a formal type of training and certain level of expertise and still came back to the neighborhood. He had such a big heart for the neighborhood,” said Sullivan

Later in his life, Titland ended up at the Wicked Monk, where chef and friend Jamie Calacanis said he wanted to make great burgers, great wings and upscale takes on American pub food and comfort food. “He elevated people’s thought of pub food,” Calacanis said.

Despite his immense skill in the kitchen, friends also remember the kind heart that Titland had.

“I met him in the third grade. We were both Boy Scouts and we worked together,” said Calacanis. “Anybody from Bay Ridge that knew him has 100 Russell stories. He was just a great guy, lovable and kind.”

“He and I have been friends for over 20 years. He was a quiet guy, but full of life. He had a heart of gold, and always saw the best in everyone,” said Gail McGuire. “We became really close about three years ago when he got sick and was in Lutheran. He was always trying to teach me about cooking but I always lost his recipes. I would annoy him and he just gave up.”

As a teen, Titland stood out in other ways. Attending middle school and New Utrecht High School, he was a star pitcher on the school’s baseball team and played the saxophone.

When his health worsened, all of Titland’s friends gathered together to stay by his side. “We’re all in our forties and life leads you in different directions,” McGuire said. “With Russell getting sick, he brought all of us back together.”

“His spirit and will to live up until the end were strong,” said Sullivan. “He never accepted death. He fought with strength and his character was an inspiration to me.”

The benefit and memorial for Titland will begin at 3 p.m. at the Wicked Monk. Auctions will take places, along with raffles and performances from some of Titland’s favorites performers, such as John Rafferty, the Canny Brothers Band, the Head and South Band and Radio Daze.

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