Tuesday morning, the Union Rescue Mission's lunch line was forming at the same time that delicacies such as sauteed duck breast in sake sauce were undergoing final preparations just a block away at an invitation-only affair on Los Angeles City Hall's South Lawn. In an odd juxtaposition, both events had something in common.
Normally, the landscaped grounds of City Hall are a daytime refuge for the homeless, who nap, loiter or hustle strollers for spare change. However, this time most of the regulars were displaced by 18 of the city's premier chefs who gathered to promote an upcoming food festival--the Taste of L.A.--by preparing samples from their high-priced repertories.
The festival, to run the second and third weekends of August at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, will devote a percentage of its earnings to organizations that feed and shelter the homeless (such as the 600 or so waiting to eat at the mission)--if the event turns a profit.
"The Taste of L.A. is not a benefit," said promoter Martin J. Ellis of Beverly Hills. "It's a celebration of restaurants where some of the profits are donated to charity. I told one of my partners that if we can make some money on this thing and help somebody along the way then (we'll) have accomplished everything."
Ellis said that the festival needs more than 27,000 paying customers for the six-day event to keep from running into the red.
Behind canopies and walls of tenting, a well-heeled group of local officials, members of the media and a broad cross-section of the area's restaurant industry assembled to hear speeches on Ellis' concept of helping the hungry by feeding the affluent.
They heard presentations from L.A. County Supervisor Deane Dana, actor Dennis Weaver and Fred Croton, general manager of Los Angeles' Office of Cultural Affairs.
After the official program, as a nine-piece jazz band entertained, those in attendance picked their way through a buffet lunch served up by the likes of La Toque, Rex Il Ristorante, L'Orangerie and several others. Beverages included domestic and imported beers, along with vintage champagne and Chardonnay. There were floral centerpieces from a Beverly Hills design firm placed atop deep blue tableclothes, all under the protection of pastel gray umbrellas.
"Are we throwing this event in the faces of homeless nearby?" wondered John Sedlar, chef-owner of Saint Estephe Restaurant in Manhattan Beach. "I don't know. The idea is to help people. However, this is an incredible dichotomy, everyone's noticed that."
Santa Monica Mayor Cristine Reed, whose city will benefit from a festival named after Los Angeles, acknowledged that a lavish party in the midst of visible suffering might be insensitive.
Motioning beyond the affair's tented walls, she said, "I know (the homeless) are lying out there. But whatever it takes to get affluent people to pay attention to this problem is worth it. . . . People are becoming cynical about these things. I know that in my city you could step on a homeless person in the parking lot of a fine restaurant."
Needed Kind of Event
"It's kind of sad," she continued. "In Southern California we need this kind of event to generate donations unlike other places in the country that respond more willingly and directly."
Ken Frank, chef-owner of La Toque, who also served as master of ceremonies, said he had no problem with the party's location.
"This location has nothing to do with insensitivity; that's something in people's minds," he said. "I make a good living feeding wealthy people food found all over the world regardless of cost and I'm fortunate as a result. . . . But there is a certain amount of guilt in serving the finest foods. I balance that with helping to feed those not as fortunate."
Ellis admitted being concerned about the proximity of the Taste of L.A. affair to the homeless who live in the adjacent Civic Center streets. He said the original plans called for the affair to be more wide open, but he ordered the site enclosed.
'Not in Anyone's Face'
"So what do you do?" he asked. "You keep the party walled off and no one knows what's going on in here. It could just as easily be a political function. It's not in anyone's face. I respect individuality whether a person is sleeping on the lawn or having dinner with you."
While the City Hall Lawn party ended with portions of Frank's chocolate walnut tarte, lunch at the Union Rescue Mission was vegetable and noodle soup, bacon and cheese sandwiches, milk and ice cream.