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The Caviar Palette: Eating for Art


Cooking an elaborate dinner for 19 guests, most of them strangers--and all of them paying big money toward a good cause--could make the most experienced hostess nervous. But 30 minutes before guests were to arrive at her house for one of the 51 dinners held in September for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's "Art of the Palate '98" fund-raiser, Cathy Rogers looked calm and organized.

"It's going to be fun," she said, bustling about the kitchen in skyscraper black heels.

And fun for Rogers this night meant orchestrating the serving of five appetizer courses, two main courses, nine desserts, three wines and cappuccino.

Most Art of the Palate hosts served food prepared by caterers or restaurants, but Rogers insisted on producing the entire menu herself (with some kitchen help) and serving it at home. And rather than planning a foolproof, straightforward four- or five-course dinner, she decided to give the guests their money's worth (each diner paid $225).

Prospective guests had been sent packets that listed party themes and locations so they could choose the event that suited their tastes. Some guests said they booked the dinner because Rogers was cooking. Others wanted to see the Rogers' Malibu home, which amounts to an Art Deco art gallery. Rogers' husband, Jeff, who has gathered the extraordinary collection, was the evening's tour guide.

Cathy Rogers' specialty is elaborate presentation. Each course consisted of a mouthful or so--more would have been overwhelming--and each was as artfully arranged as a museum display.

"I'm crazy for little tastes," she said. "At the end you're not really full, but you're satisfied."

To tie in with the benefit theme, Rogers designed one appetizer as a miniature artist's palette. The palette itself was shaped from a thin slice of French bread painted white with a cream cheese mixture. Rogers then spooned on tiny dabs of red, yellow and black caviars, chives and finely chopped hard-boiled egg yolks and whites to simulate paints. For a brush she attached dark bristles cut from squid ink pasta to a short length of pale egg pasta.

Twenty minutes before the guests were due, Rogers came up with yet another way to convey the party theme. Her idea was to print the word "Art" on each dessert plate. So there she was, cutting out a stencil, then sprinkling cocoa letters onto 19 dessert plates as calmly as if she were spending the evening at home alone.

As guests arrived, they headed straight for the kitchen to watch Rogers at work. Again, she showed not the slightest sign of pressure but welcomed each arrival cordially. When one glanced about and observed, "Some of this looks good enough to eat," Rogers joked right back: "We're definitely going to be eating." Certainly an understatement.

When the guests took their seats, so did Rogers. There were times, naturally, when she disappeared into the kitchen. But still, she managed to relax and enjoy the party as if she too were a guest. It was an awesome performance.

To get some inkling of the scope of Rogers' work, consider the dessert plate. It contained seven desserts--a tiny lemon tart, a miniature banana chocolate cream pie topped with a caramel cage, a white nectarine tart with homemade blackberry ice cream, blueberry crumble pie with vanilla cream, a profiterole with homemade French vanilla ice cream and caramel fudge sauce, a dab of chocolate croissant bread pudding with Bourbon creme anglaise and an amazing red slipper that Rogers formed of red chocolate purchased from a cake decorating supply store. This she brushed with warmed chocolate and dipped in red sprinkles. The slipper was filled with peppermint ice cream (homemade, again).

In addition, Rogers set a white chocolate baby grand piano with dark chocolate keys and a tiny sheet of music on each table. It contained English toffee. Each table also shared a tiny caramel milk chocolate cheesecake that formed the base of a merry-go-round made of yellow chocolate and gingerbread cutout animals. Rogers had made every component of these too.

Furthermore, Rogers made all of the dinner breads, which included cinnamon-raisin rolls, chewy onion pretzels, fresh corn cob breads and a sourdough olive loaf. And she made the smoked salmon that topped horseradish-dill cream for an appetizer served in a parchment-wrapped cone. The cone was made of a savory tuile that had been sprinkled with fresh tarragon before baking.

The Rogers' collection of vintage accessories came in handy in presenting the dinner. The salmon cones were supported by a wooden pipe rack. A King Edward Imperial cigar box lined with a white napkin held tiny breads. Places were set with silver in a variety of patterns, including Community silver from the 1920s and coin silver forks from England in a pattern dating from 1877.

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