SAN DIEGO — Had the Pillsbury Doughboy wandered into the Sheraton Harbor Island's Champagne Ballroom Saturday, I wouldn't have given a wooden nickel for his chances.
The pudgy little fellow would have been rolled out, stuffed, shaped, baked and eaten more quickly than he could have said "poppin' fresh."
Such was the peril faced by anything that looked even remotely edible at "The Art of Cooking," the sixth annual "Celebrities Cook for the UC San Diego Cancer Center" gala, which set up a dozen kitchens in the Sheraton ballroom and invited 600 guests to munch through a wild melange of treats prepared by amateur and professional gourmets, gourmands and gastronomes. The countless thousands of calories consumed both that evening and at the next day's "Cuisine, Cuisine," an informal food festival, netted more than $180,000 for the cancer center's research and treatment programs.
An extra spice was added to the "Celebrities Cook" stew this year by the "art of cooking" theme, which stressed the bond between cuisine and the more formal fine arts. Instead of the showy cooking booths used in former years, the committee set up kitchens draped in white cloth, which made a quietly elegant background both for the food displays and for the artworks--executed by a dozen local artists--that served as the sole decor. Each artist displayed a painting or sculpture that graphically represented or interpreted a dish prepared by the four celebrity and eight contestant chefs.
The celebrities--event founder Anne Otterson, cooking teacher Jerrie Strom, vintner Martha Culbertson and Tribune food editor Antonia Allegra--had merely to toil, perspire and enjoy themselves while they offered tidbits to the black-tied masses. The contestants had to work even harder, though, since their best efforts were presented to a panel of five judges whose task it was to chew critically and award bronze, silver and gold medallions to the three top entries.
The top award went to Sandy Johnson for her "Hoppin' John Vinaigrette," an updated version of the Old South dish of black-eyed peas. Sheraton public relations director Nancy Eckis captured the silver medal for "Tacomania," a double-whammy of stuffed tortillas, and Hal Clark took the bronze medal for his Texas-style thin corn bread topped with barbecued quail. The five judges were Times food editor Betsy Balsley; American Institute of Wine and Food membership director Susy Davidson; Sunset Magazine home economics editor Jerry DiVecchio; Ketchum Food Center director Maggie Waldron, and Bon Appetit food editor Jan Weimer.
It always pays to be fleet of foot at this party because the cannier guests make the rounds of the food booths with the celerity of truffle hounds on the scent, each one ready to snatch up any tasty morsels that may be at hand. (The table centerpieces, which included clumps of mushrooms tucked among the snapdragons, somehow survived intact.) But guests were willing to wait patiently at the unusual booth set up by architect Tom Grondona, who undertook to be both contestant cook and artist.
Event chairman Gigi Haynor said that had she accepted Grondona's original booth proposal, it would have been necessary to "blast the roof off the hotel" to make room for it. The scaled-down version, dubbed "Saint Claire's Wall," had the look of an edifice somewhere between construction and demolition, and included a tiny aperture through which Grondona handed out, one at a time, freshly prepared versions of his own brilliantly wacky dish. (These were basically blocks of cheese spread with an amazing mixture; the architect served them centered on blueprints printed with a fork pointing into the middle of a plate.) It is necessary to name only four of the ingredients--Beluga caviar, pimento, lime gelatin and peanut butter, all mixed into a "mortar"--to give an idea of this dish. Many guests went back for seconds.
Second Repast Catered
After having had one dinner on their feet, the guests sat down for a second repast, this one catered by the hotel kitchens. A garlic custard preceded rare veal, crunchy potato cakes and an unusual marshmallow dessert topped with raspberries. After the meal, those still able to rise from their chairs burned off a few calories dancing to the Bill Green Orchestra. Others circled the room inspecting the artworks, which were for sale, with 30% of the proceeds earmarked for the cancer center. Among the artists were paper sculptor Martha Chatelaine, painter John Yato, painter Marjorie Nodelman, sculptor Margaret Honda and watercolorist Joyce Kitchell.
Lois Stanton served both as mistress of ceremonies and as coordinator of judges and celebrity cooks. Other committee members were event co-chair Pam Wischkaemper, Lisa Terkel, Marie Olesen, Marilynn Boesky, Lyn Heller, Cheryl Rohde, Ewa Robinson, Kasia Johnson, Sandy Rosenthal, Rochelle Felitti, Judy Werner and Joan Tukey.