SAN DIEGO — The scene made for a toothsome twist on Oliver's tale: Hundreds of exquisitely dressed men and women held out their plates to white-coated chefs and said, in effect, "Please, sir, I would like some more."
The oysters flowed like oysters and the wine like wine at Saturday's annual "Celebrities Cook for the UCSD Cancer Center," given for a sold-out attendance of 570 in the Sheraton Harbor Island's Champagne Ballroom. The seventh in a string of annual assaults on some of the city's better-known waistlines, this year's extravaganza was dubbed "A Vintage Celebration" in honor of the California wineries that brought along cases and cases of their better efforts.
Charity chow-downs have become familiar enough, partly because of the success of "Celebrities Cook," which remains the local granddaddy of them all, and continues to rank as the most successful in both attendance and net proceeds (Saturday's nosh-out hauled in about $125,000).
Charm in the Format
The charm lies in the format, which always opens with a kind of show-and-tell cooking exhibit aimed straight at the taste buds of the gastronomic jet set. In some years, as many as 16 mini-kitchens grouped at either end of the room have offered exotic tidbits to an eager clientele; these traditionally have been manned by gifted local amateurs in competition for the favor of a panel of judges, whose ranks over the years have included such culinary luminaries as the late James Beard.
The 1988 chairman, Pam Wischkaemper, and her food-wise committee chose to offer a tasty variation on the theme by staffing the booths with professional chefs, four of them non-competing practitioners from California wineries, and seven contestants from some of the county's best restaurants. Each mini-kitchen was sponsored by a winery, and all offered tastes of the vintage that each dish had been designed to complement. Considering that champagne was tossed into the mix, it made for a bubblingly bibulous prelude to the evening of dinner and dancing.
Other than judges, contestants and committee members, few witnessed the calm that preceded the storm that nearly swamped the room when the doors were thrown open and the guests lined up for tastes of the braided salmon in basil sauce offered by the John Culbertson Winery's Dennis Barry, and the grilled ratatouille dished up by Richard Alexei of Monticello Cellars. The bulk of the work--slicing, slashing, dicing, hashing, ricing, mashing--was done early in the day so that the judges could get theirs first.
The judges, if truth be told, were rather disgruntled at the fact that Prohibition had been decreed at the judges' table, especially since the event was such a specific celebration of the grape. Marian Burros, noted food writer for the New York Times, made it clear that she disliked being banished from the bacchanal.
"Next time, I hope they'll give us wine with the food," she said. "When we heard this was going to be a 'dry' meal, we were all going to revolt, but our good manners won out." After making this comment, Burros glanced rather pointedly at the huge bunches of grapes (convincingly arranged balloons threaded with twinkling lights) that hung overhead.
The rest of the panel consisted of well-known oenophiles, including San Diegans Tom Gable and Tawfiq and Richel Khoury. The others were vintners Barney and Belle Rhodes of Bella Oaks Vineyards, and Robert Mondavi and his wife, Margrit Biever.
Among the competing chefs were the Sheraton's Bob Brody, Scott Meskan of George's at the Cove, Thomas Dowling of the Rancho Bernardo Inn, Catherine White of Piret M and Deborah Schneider, chef at La Gran Tapa, but, for the nonce, part of the team representing Dobson's. All seemed to find the evening both amusing and a genuine change of pace, if no less demanding than their usual duties.
A Festive Athmosphere
Brody, who also had to supervise both the elaborate "Celebrities Cook" banquet and four other banquets, seemed to mean it when he said, "This whole thing is just fun." Brody's blue corn pancakes with prawns and cilantro lemon cream won second place.
McDonald looked unconcerned by the scores of hands reaching for samples of her morel mushrooms stuffed with lobster mousse, which disappeared as quickly as she plated them. "You never get to meet your customers when you're back in the kitchen," she said. "This is a slightly more festive atmosphere than what I usually work in."
Will Howard of La Jolla's Issimo, whose oysters with watercress mousse tied Schneider's dish for third place, admitted to being somewhat harried by the crush. "I'm glad my waiters don't grab like this," he said.
The grand prize went to Mille Fleur's Martin Woesle for his sensuous duck liver mousse, garnished with an aspic flavored with Quady Vineyard's Essencia wine.