SAN DIEGO — Imagine that Herman Melville had rewritten "Moby Dick" every year, using its basic theme as a guide but altering its characters and tone each time so as to give the novel a different flavor.
We might then also have had a comic "Moby Dick," a melodramatic "Moby Dick," a "Moby Dick" reinterpreted according to Confucian philosophy, maybe even a "Moby Dick" cookbook.
The annual "Celebrities Cook for the UCSD Cancer Center" fund-raising gala is rather like a "Moby Dick" transformed with yearly permutations. Its Melville, event founder Anne Otterson, endowed the party with a basic, sprawling theme that encompasses plenty of action and emotional drama. There is a chase in this party, the quest for the gold medal as the contestants vie to top one another's culinary creations. And there are the indispensable ecstasy of victory and agony of defeat, too, as some contestants march triumphantly to the awards dais while others head home with nothing more than empty casseroles to show for their travails.
The publication of the fifth anniversary edition of "Celebrities Cook," as edited by co-chairs Marie Olesen and Marilynn Boesky, took place Saturday in the Sheraton Harbor Island East's Champagne Ballroom. A record tally of some 660 guests turned out to watch the drama unfold, and, as always, it turned out to be a party they could really sink their teeth into.
There were numerous "as alwayses" that evening. As always, rows of gaily decorated mini-kitchens were set up at either end of the ballroom. As always, these kitchens harbored fiercely competitive local amateur cooks, all of whom raced feverishly around their cubicles slicing and dicing, stirring and sauteing, shaking and baking. Each not only had to impress a panel of judges with his gastronomic dexterity, but also cater enough of the specialty to be able to offer bites to each of the guests. So it was not surprising that, as always, the atmosphere took on the volatile intensity of a pressure cooker, and the room seemed like a cauldron filled to the brim with conflicting ambitions and hot emotions.
But, as always, the plot took several novel twists this year. A quartet of local cooking teachers (Elena Cota, Virginia Thomas, Grace Wheeler and George Yackey) was recruited to whip up special treats during the cocktail hour, and Asian cuisine impresario Tommy Tang was lured down from Los Angeles to prepare his famous "King Cobra," a wildly spiced shrimp mixture spread on endive leaves. A second quartet, in this case composed of confectionary experts, handled the desserts. This group included La Jolla's Edie Greenberg, with whose truffles it is said that no one trifles; Alice Medrich of Berkeley's Cocolat; dessert book author Marlene Sorosky, who had her pal, comedian Danny Kaye, in tow; and Flo Braker, author of "The Simple Art of Baking."
The outline for this year's "Celebrities Cook" even had an epilogue written into it, in the form of a next-day party called "Cuisine, Cuisine." Described as a catering fair, it offered cooking demonstrations and a chocolate buffet, as well as an opportunity to meet several members of the San Diego Padres. About 1,500 guests attended, which helped push the combined proceeds from the two events over the $175,000 mark, a sum that will underwrite various projects at the UC San Diego Cancer Center.
It was a long day for the contestants, the cooking experts and the judges, and a long, fattening evening for the guests. The contestants spent the entire day (and, in most cases, the previous day) cooking, and the judges sat down at 5 p.m. to begin the task of sampling the various creations.
Seven contestants, each aided by a battery of culinary assistants, competed. Katy Dessent took the gold medal with her capirotada, a New Mexico-style bread pudding; she said that dishing up 660 portions was "just like being at home." The silver medal went to Jon Connor and his assistant, Eric Otterson, for pan-fried Chinese dumplings; at 17, the two were the youngest contestants ever to participate in "Celebrities Cook." Christine Forester captured the bronze medal with an elegant appetizer called "salmon Chrisdoba." Also competing were James Cabral, who whipped up a Portuguese seafood soup that he named "caldo Manual Silva" in honor of the founder of San Diego's tuna fleet; architect Robert Mosher, who offered what he called an "architectonic" appetizer; Gene de Filippi, who served spanakopita ; and Robert Valtz, who named his interesting seafood quiche after a property he owns in Normandy.
Holding these offerings up to the pitiless light of professional criticism was a panel of judges that included San Diego's Piret and George Munger; Italian cooking expert Lorenza de Medici, a member of the ancient Medici family; cookbook author Paula Wolfert, and Carl Sontheimer, the man who introduced the Cuisinart to America.