Edward Lea/PHOTOGRAPHER Chef Joe Battle serve up his Bite size Pork Tenderloin at Boys and Girls Club, MEN R CO OKIN, at Harrah’s Pool in Atlantic City

Atlantic City has become something of a food destination in the last decade. From seafood festivals to gastropubs to a gaggle of restaurants owned by Irons Chefs and Food Network celebrities, this town knows something about good cooking.

But one annual event is about more than just who has found the fanciest use for chanterelles or whose ice has the best clarity.

Men R’ Cookin is a charity event run by The Boys and Girls Club of Atlantic City. The fundraiser returns 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16, to the conference center at Harrah’s Atlantic City. Now in its 16th year, Cookin’ has become one of ACBGC’s most successful ongoing events. This “Sweet 16” marks an impressive run for any event in Atlantic City, a town where good things seem to disappear at a rapid rate.

The event is the biggest annual fundraiser for the organization, which helps disadvantaged children and teens in Atlantic City. But how big is big?

“We are hoping for a hundred thousand (dollars). We usually do really well, It’s always over 500 people attending,” says Maryann McElroy, Director of Development at ACBGC.

Themed around the general concept of men who cook, over 70 participants will compete to see whose culinary game is tightest and whose dishes come out on top. The dishes will be judged by a panel from the Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape. There are amateur and professional categories up for grabs including appetizers, salads, main courses and desserts.

And even the kids are getting in on the action.

“Yes, the kids are cooking!” McElroy says. “Cookie Till from Steve and Cookie’s in Margate is running the Kids R’ Cookin’ program, which teaches them how to cook healthy and inexpensive meals for themselves. This year they will be competing at Men R’ Cookin’ as well.”

So what else is new at the event?

“We have a VIP area this year with comfortable seating that was donated by Aaron’s Furniture. It’s a real community effort putting this event together. Between all the chefs and the companies associated with it … it’s a great night and a really fun event.”

Just before the event there will be a live radio broadcast of WOND 1400 AM’s afternoon show “Off The Press with Scott Cronick” from 4 to 6 p.m. at the conference center at Harrah’s.

Beyond just the fun of the one night event, part of the goal is to get kids to want to cook on their own time.

“The event has absolutely inspired the kids to cook, even at home,” McElroy says. When we have cooking classes they are so engaged and so excited to be able to do that for themselves.”

The competition heats up

Of course the kids are only handling one portion of the “cookin.’” Local chefs, business owners and amateurs alike all throw their hats in the ring for Men R’ Cookin each year. This year is no different, and if anything the competition seems to be getting fiercer than ever.

“The event is a lot of fun and for a good cause,” says Mark Callazzo, owner of The Iron Room in Atlantic City who is teaming up with Press of A.C. Director of Entertainment Publications, Scott Cronick to compete in the amateur category, preparing bacon with peppered vanilla sugar glaze and house made tamari mustard. “But almost as important is the fact that we get a chance to beat Ken Calemmo. He has a dynasty of winning the event and I hope to take him down this year.”

Ken Calemmo is the C.O.O of Cooper Levinson, a law firm in Atlantic City. He is also a yearly competitor at Men R’ Cookin and one heck of an amateur chef.

If Callazzo and Cronick are to take down the champ, it’s going to require some serious chops in the kitchen. Of course they do have the culinary muscle of Iron Room Chef Kevin Cronin advising them, so things could get interesting this year.

“If we could win based solely on Mark’s ego, we would easily dethrone Calemmo,” Cronick says. “But we think our bacon has a pretty good shot. “

No matter who comes out on top, the real winners will be the attendees who get the privilege of tasting the competition and knowing their hard earned donation will go to a great cause.