Two nights after the riots ended, Mauro Vincenti sat up in bed--he had an idea.
The owner of downtown's Rex Il Ristorante thought he knew how to make the city a better place. His plan: Throw a huge festival of food, music and art in a Central L.A. location. "If we can get everyone together," he said passionately, "even for a moment, we have helped a bit."
And after the festival, what then? Vincenti's ultimate goal is to use the money raised by the festival to build a neighborhood park within Exposition Park--a town square for the city. "When they built L.A.," he says, "they forgot the town square. You don't build the town without building the square. The Romans knew that 3,000 years ago."
Vincenti explains his motivation: "You can do two things: You can think positive, or you can buy a lot of guns and live in a fortress."
So he went into action. The first call was to a planner. "Mauro asked me to come at once, he needed me instantly," says Wayne Ratkovitch, an influential Los Angeles real estate developer. "He wanted to build something for the community. So I went." In less than a week, Ratkovitch had helped Vincenti put together the outline for Art & Food Care!, an international festival of food and culture. At that point, the plan called for it to be held in Exposition Park in late September.
Next, he got on the phone and enlisted help from some of L.A.'s best restaurants. "It's not easy for me to get involved in things," says L'Orangerie's Gerard Ferry, "but in this case it's very important. What happened was grave enough to understand that if you live in a community you have to do something." Some of the others who agreed to help were the owners of Yujean Kang, Katsu, Citrus, Checkers, Drago, Campanile, Bikini, Michael's, Primi, Sonora Cafe, Lunaria and Bice.
Then Vincenti went to the community; he lined up artists and musicians, and before he was done he even had Muhammad Ali's former bodyguard, involved in the project.
Finally, Vincenti went global, asking the world's best restaurants to participate. The festival's pedigree grew. New York restaurants--San Domenico, Le Cirque, Montrachet, Le Madri--all agreed to be part of the festival. San Franciscans Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower both said yes. Vincenti called Italy and instantly signed up Vissani, Alia, Il Trigabolo, Antica Osteria del Ponte. . . . His enthusiasm was so infectious nobody wanted to say no. "There are a lot of people who are looking for miracles," Ratkovitch says. "We need them badly."
After the initial help was lined up, the need for big money arose and Vincenti began looking for corporate sponsors. Two of the most promising were KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Seagram's. But problems arose.
"We are not going to be able to go into it in any way that we thought we were originally," says a spokeswoman for KLM, which had agreed to donate airline tickets for the event, "because some of our marketing funds have been frozen. It's not that we don't \o7 want \f7 to be involved with the program," she insists, "we just don't have the dollars to go ahead with it."
Vincenti says Seagram's had indicated that a donation of $150,000 would be possible, but later changed its mind because of location. "They said it would help if we moved it to the Westside."
"He gave us a proposal to be a title sponsor of the event," says Wendell Unzicker, Seagram's Southern California general manager, "and there were some concerns at the beginning about the site because our New York folks really didn't understand exactly where it was, and also about the advisability of an alcoholic beverage company sponsoring this. The decision was made not to sponsor it. The real reason was because of budgets."
Still, Vincenti remains undaunted. He has since changed the festival date to sometime around next Easter and continues to search for big-money sponsors. He's currently talking to American Airlines and Hiram Walker.
Vincenti has also enlisted help in the Korean-American community. "You just can't say no to him," says Sandy Yi, partner in dk&a, an international marketing and communications firm located in Koreatown, "because you know his heart is completely in it." Yi says she and her partner originally promised only to assist Vincenti in coordinating various restaurants and performers in the Korean community. "But our role kind of expanded," laughs Yi, "and all of a sudden we got recruited to the fund-raising effort too. Mauro has that kind of effect on people." Thanks to her company, Samsung Electronics America just pledged $10,000.
Is Yi upset that the festival has been postponed until next spring? Not at all. "It's not only more timely, because it's the one-year mark of the riots," she says, "but it also gives us more time to prepare."
L'Orangerie's Ferry agrees. He is attempting to recruit some of France's top restaurateurs. "September is a very busy season in France," he says. "You can't say, 'We need you in two months in Los Angeles,' when they are running a business in Burgundy."
Meanwhile, Pasadena restaurateur Yujean Kang has enlisted several top San Francisco Chinese restaurants. "I wanted to join the cause," he says, "because I'm thinking this is greater than just the Los Angeles area."
"One way or another," Vincenti vows, "we are going to find the money. The important thing in all this is that we get 70,000 or 80,000 people down there. Can we all live together? That's what it comes down to."