Patron co-chairs Dan and Debbie Dierdorf and Anne and Doug Albrecht.

One of the year’s most anticipated gourmet food festivals for a good cause is just around the corner: The 17th annual March of Dimes Signature Chefs Auction takes place at The Ritz-Carlton on Wednesday, Sept. 9, bringing together more than two dozen of St. Louis’ finest chefs under one roof. “The food is the reason people look forward to this event,” says patron co-chair Doug Albrecht. “It’s fun to go from table to table and have something incredible at every stop.”

The St. Louis Signature Chefs event is the fifth largest nationally for the March of Dimes. Last year’s auction raised more than $325,000, and Albrecht says this year’s goal is $340,000. “It’s important to note that a lot of those dollars remain in St. Louis, and all funds raised stay in Missouri,” he says. This year alone, March of Dimes is investing almost $5 million in research, programs, education and advocacy for healthy babies in Missouri, including more than $50,000 for outreach programs in St. Louis to help moms get better prenatal care and to warn them about the dangers of smoking.

There are approximately 10,000 premature births in Missouri each year, but the numbers are dropping. In 2007, the premature birth rate dropped to 12.5 percent, down from 13.3 percent in 2005, and below the national average. “Over the years, March of Dimes has demonstrated that it puts our dollars to good use, and there is tangible progress,” says patron co-chair Dan Dierdorf. “We’re all aware that these are difficult times, but there are some areas that we just can’t cut back, like supporting a blue-chip organization such as March of Dimes. They get it done.”

Dierdorf says annual events like Signature Chefs and March for Babies in the spring, bolster support for carrying out the organization’s mission of increasing the number of healthy newborns. Dierdorf, a football Hall-of-Famer best known for his prowess as an offensive lineman for the St. Louis Cardinals, says he’s learned to appreciate what a blessing good health is. “As someone who made a living as an athlete, it makes sense to me to help those who are not as fortunate physically, it’s a no-brainer.”

This year, Signature Chefs is honoring Thom Sehnert of Annie Gunn’s, one of the event’s original co-founders. “I’ve been Thom’s friend for more than 30 years, and I can say this without fear of being wrong: He has donated more dinners and more time and effort to the various charities in St. Louis than any restaurateur in the city,” Dierdorf proclaims. “He’s embarrassed by this, but his generosity is legend. This is just our small way of saying thanks for everything he’s done for the community.”

This year’s event co-chairs are Suzanne Dalton and Pam Toder. Thom Sehnert and Vince Bommarito Jr. are serving as honorary co-chairs. Patron co-chairs are Doug and Anne Albrecht and Dan and Debbie Dierdorf.

Individual tickets are $200. Patron levels include Super Nova, at $5,000 per table; Shooting Star, $500 per person; Gold Star, $300 per person; and Silver Star, $250 per person.

Participating restaurants, each of which prepare their signature dishes at the event, include Araka, Dominic’s, Il Bel Lago, LoRusso’s, Monarch, Niche, Sidney Street Cafe and Tony’s, among others. In addition to the culinary tasting buffet, silent and live auctions will take place, with the live auction featuring gourmet packages from the chefs themselves. “It’s really a double-header,” says Dierdorf. “Along with experiencing all the quality food and wine, imagine coming out with a great package in which one of the chefs will come to your home and make dinner for you and your friends.” If you’re a foodie, he says, this is a don’t-miss evening. “The trip from Annie Gunn’s to Tony’s is usually a 35-minute drive; at Signature Chefs, it’s a five-step walk.”