It wasn't a competition for amateurs.
Food judge Jacques Pepin--once personal chef to the late French president Charles de Gaulle, now consultant to New York's cliquey Russian Tea Room--said he was looking for "extraordinary taste."
Judge Craig Claiborne--author and food editor of the New York Times--was after "rare texture."
And judge Michael Batterberry--founding editor of Food and Wine magazine--hungered for "balance and imagination."
They found them Saturday night at "Gourmet Gala," a cooking competition at the Irvine Hilton & Towers that brought $50,000 to the Orange County Chapter of the March of Dimes.
"It's the finest food we've had at any Gourmet Gala around the country," declared Claiborne, dabbing the corner of his mouth with a linen napkin after judging the gourmet fare of seven local chefs.
Playing off a "Hooray for Hollywood" theme, the March of Dimes gala that Time magazine has dubbed "the best new fund-raising idea to come down the pike since Girl Scout cookies" left 500 guests feeling as though they had attended a culinary Academy Awards.
Many Awards Given
By the time presenters had opened all of the "envelopes, please," chef John McLaughlin (of JW's restaurant at the Anaheim Marriott), cooking in a booth decorated in an "Out of Africa" theme, had won the American Regional Cuisine Award for his dreamy cold lobster with hazelnut dressing; chef Don Hamilton (of The Ritz in Newport Beach), ensconced in the "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" booth, had won the Food and Wine magazine award for his tender, grilled squab with sweet potato pancake and cranberry chutney; and David Wilhelm (director, product development for El Torito restaurants), cooking in the "Around the World in 80 Days" booth, had won the Corning Creative Cookery Award for his warm lobster and corn custard salad.
Awards were also bestowed for booth "set decorations" with Best Adaptation of Theme going to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," decorated by Inner Visions of Irvine; Most Original to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," designed by Interior Designery of Huntington Beach; Best Creative Design to "Casablanca," decorated by Carole P. Eichen of Santa Ana, and Judge's Choice to "An American in Paris," designed by Tom Nibur of Corona del Mar.
Seen around the ballroom: Kathryn Thompson (co-sponsor with date Gus Owen of the "Gone With the Wind" booth), in a geranium-red "Scarlett O'Hara" gown emblazoned with 265,000 sequins hand-sewn to its scalloped overskirt by Gildas, the haute Newport Beach designer; astronaut Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin Jr., who recalled the moon smelling nothing like the garlic-filled ballroom but "a little like cheese"; Orange County Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder, who, after nibbling at some squid-ink ravioli whipped up by chef Reiner Langbein of the posh Pacific Club in Newport Beach, said she still liked the pasta "even after I found out what was in it"; Mary Ann Miller, in a madcap cocktail hat she had found that afternoon at Recycled Rags, a second-hand boutique in Newport Beach, and Gene Brown, senior vice-president of Ralphs (donors of $25,000 to the gala), who enjoyed the singular experience of having a monkey, flitting about the "Raiders of the Lost Ark" booth, wrap its tail around his leg.
During a cocktail hour that saw guests sipping a "Hollywood and Wine" creation whipped up for the affair, New Yorker Elaine Whitelaw--coordinator of Gourmet Galas around the country--recalled how the gala finally came to Orange County a little more than a year ago:
"A while back, Kathryn Thompson visited New York, and her friend arranged for us to meet over lunch at the Russian Tea Room. Well, as we sat there, in walked Maxine Mesinger, the social columnist for the Houston Chronicle. She told Kathryn to 'do whatever Elaine tells you to do--the Gourmet Gala is the best party there is!' And Kathryn said she'd do it, bring the gala to Orange County."
Dinner fare, prepared by Irvine Hilton chefs, included smoked salmon with Beluga caviar, consomme of duckling en croute, lamb with mushroom mousse and chocolate and orange charlotte.
Also judging the food competition were Ariane Batterberry, co-founder of Food and Wine magazine with husband, Michael; W. Peter Prestcott, entertainment and special projects editor for Food and Wine magazine; Fifi Chao, restaurant correspondent, KIEV Radio, Los Angeles, and James Villas, food and wine editor for Town and Country magazine.
William Lusk was gala chairman.