ST. HELENA, Calif. — A voice originating in the far regions of the nasal septum sang out in the balmy Napa Valley night air.
"Well, we finally made it. We have proven we can do it as well as gentlemen," said Madeleine Kamman, the keynote speaker at a $200-a-plate summer harvest dinner on the Beringer Vineyard grounds. The dinner honored 11 of the nation's top women chefs and benefited the American Institute of Wine and Food's computer data bank.
Never one to mince words, Kamman, the reigning culinary queen of cable television, cookbook author, teacher, lecturer, syndicated food columnist and one of the few female French chefs extraordinaire today, smiled like a pope giving a benediction. The 400 guests had traveled from far and near to wine and dine on the five-course dinner prepared by the star chefs.
Flickering light from the hundreds of votive candles on tables across the Beringer lawns danced on Kamman's stiff French twist silver coif like a crown.
"I remember too well," the nasal pitch crescendoed, "when Paul Bocuse (father of French nouvelle cuisine) announced that men belong in the professional kitchen and women belong in bed. At that time I turned a photograph of him upside down and he has been upside down ever since."
Kamman had made her point. In enlightened professional kitchens, women are no longer regarded as second-class citizens, although not too many enlightened kitchens exist worldwide. But some women--a few in the United States--are now as famous as many of their male counterparts. And a good portion of those women had been summoned to donate their talents to the Napa Valley event.
A brief look behind the scenes will tell you who they are, what they do and why.
Let's go back in time, just an hour or two before Kamman sprang onto the podium for her four-minute talk.
Let's leave the serene elegance of the cocktail party crowd on the Beringer patio, where freshly frocked guests gingerly nibble on sui - mai, crispy spring rolls and corn tamales and sip Domaine Chandon Reserve and Schramsberg Blanc de Noir under a wash of jazz music wafting from a knoll where musicians Jim Purcell and Pierre Josephs play.
The place was transformed into a marketplace--complete with local produce, bales of hay and live fowl--by wine-country interior designers Julie and Gary Wagner, who also decorated the tables with whimsical scarecrows and bird houses clinging to vines. All partially donated.
Let's hike up around the bend where the banging and clanging, moiling and toiling by the chefs is going on in makeshift tented kitchens spread out on the vineyard grounds into work areas, just the way they would be in a restaurant kitchen. The food service is about to begin, and, like Olympic sprinters, the chefs and their helpers have assembled in the service area to plan the last-minute grilling and serving of food that took all day to prep. The food service, up to the fifth course, would keep the women going until 10:25 p.m. Timing, after all, is what fine cooking is all about.
Smoke bellows from portable grills; faces, hot, red and sweaty under the labor of it all. Yet, there is an amazing calm among the women who have worked from noon to dusk and beyond, perhaps a sign more telling of the nature of women.
During the day, the place bustled with workers in kitchen whites--both men and women--helpers and stars mixed together. All volunteers--or partially so--for the cause.
One squints to separate the stars from the sous chefs and dedicated volunteers.
Ah, yes, there is Barbara Tropp of the China Moon in San Francisco, author of a definitive cookbook on Chinese cuisine (you can't miss her trademark wide-brim lavender straw hat). She was showing her colleague Lydia Shire, executive chef at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles, how to fold the sui-mai dumplings so they look like flower petals. "That's exactly right," says Tropp in her precise, ladylike way. The confetti-colored sui-mai fillings, made with fish mousse and colorful garnishes, are a twist on the traditional Cantonese pork-filled dumplings. Arranged on a tray, they appear like splashes of paint on an artist's palette. Gorgeous. Tropp is pleased.
Joyce Goldstein of Square One and Caffe Quadro in San Francisco was meticulously de-veining hundreds of shrimp for her chilled gazpacho, stopping now and then, just the way movie stars do, to pose for the cameramen who were covering the event for various media. She had carried loaves of homemade rosemary bread to serve with the salad course and was worried that they might have gone limp.