No business, no politics, no religion, no gossip, no networking, no schmoozing.
So what's left to talk about during a 5 1/2-hour, 12-course dinner?
To begin with, the dinner. After all, it's not often that five top Orange County chefs, all working together in the same kitchen, serve you up enough chow to make your eyes cross.
That was the recipe for culinary bliss for 28 members and guests at last week's meeting of the Les Amis d'Escoffier Society of Southern California, a small group of restaurateurs, culinary professionals and gourmets dedicated to great dining in the manner of the famous Victorian-era "king of chefs and chef of kings," Auguste Escoffier.
The dinner was held at the Balboa Bay Club and orchestrated by the club's president and chief operating officer, Henry Schielein, who founded the society's chapter, and leavened by actor and pianist Dudley Moore, a new Newport Beach resident who was the guest of honor.
It was an all-male, black-tie gathering, the result, said members, of the tendency over the years for culinary professionals to be men. However, said Schielein, in recent years all-female chapters of the society have been established.
The action in the kitchen was considerable but amicable, with the five head chefs overseeing a platoon of cuisiniers, or deputy chefs, in the preparation of the extensive meal.
"We haven't killed each other yet," said Four Seasons Hotel head chef Michel Pieton, grinning around the kitchen at his colleagues. They were the Balboa Bay Club's Jean-Pierre Eigenheer, the Ritz-Carlton's Christian Rassinoux and Jacques Laurent, and the Hotel Laguna's Todd Clore.
After the last pre-dinner sip of Perrier-Jouet champagne and the last delicate hors d'oeuvre (by Eigenheer), Schielein laid out the evening's--and the society's--ground rules:
1) The napkin must be worn tucked into the collar, not on the lap (a good idea; food at this stratospheric level can sometimes be tricky to guide mouthward).
2) No one under the influence of liquor will be seated.
3) When a course is completed, the wine
that accompanies it is also removed, whether or not the glass is empty.
4) No smoking until the dessert course (fine cigars were provided).
5) No table talk of business, politics or religion, or gossip about members, or any attempt to make business contacts.
Songs and Cigars
No, that night the talk--and there was a lot of it--was mostly about food, particularly the food of the moment. Detailed explanations of each food and wine course were given by each chef and by the narrateur des vins, Phil Crowley.
It was not a night to count calories. "Don't think about cholesterol tonight," said Pieton as he explained his first courses of mussel soup with fennel and saffron, and a delicate terrine de fois gras.
Next came Rassinoux's coquilles St. Jacques champenoise gratine and darne de turbot amiral , followed by a palate-cleansing trou Normand (a shot of Calvados, the apple brandy of Normandy). Clore weighed in with what may have been the most unusual course of the evening, palombe de la riche-- Scottish wood pigeon.
On and on, the food and wine came: Eigenheer's roast filet of beef and veal St. Germain, salade assortie Beaucaire and an extensive plate of fresh fruits and cheeses. Laurent wound up the feed with an airy Grand Marnier souffle and three rich sorbets, and delicate petit fours arranged on a scaffolding of bittersweet chocolate.
Schielein, the cigar nut's cigar nut, provided stogies for all, along with a choice of cognac, port and other liqueurs.
"These guys put in a lot of overtime," Schielein said.
Moore didn't let the evening go by without visiting the piano near the kitchen door. He rolled easily through "As Time Goes By" and, at the end of the evening, a few well-fed guests gathered around the piano with him to sing "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square."
No one could remember all the words. It didn't seem to matter. It would take a lot more than a memory lapse on lyrics to wipe those smiles off.