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Chefs Grab Spotlight in Season of Fundraisers, Awards

Take 30 of Orange County’s top chefs, put them in a hotel ballroom, assign each to a table of 10 hungry diners, and have them cook an extravagant, five-course gourmet meal paired with wine tableside using minimal equipment but maximum talent.

That may sound like a crazy new Food Network cooking competition, but it’s actually a popular new culinary extravaganza that raises money for local charities.

Last month, two such events were held on back-to-back weekends: Table for Ten at the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa in Dana Point, and OC Chef’s Table at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa in Anaheim.

I was fortunate to attend both—Table for Ten as a lucky diner, the OC Chef’s Table reception as a media guest to chat with chefs about their menus.

The events are similar in style and purpose, despite being on opposite ends of the county. Watching expert chefs orchestrate and prepare masterful multicourse dinners tableside is a real treat.

At Table for Ten, I wandered the Marriott ballroom with fellow foodie and dining companion Shelly Zavala to see what the chefs were concocting. We marveled at the elaborate table decor while observing chefs and sommeliers try to outdo each other with eclectic designs and exquisite cuisine.

The Honorary Executive Chef Chairwoman was Rachel Haggstrom of Balboa Bay Resort. Participating chefs included Pascal Olhats, Ron Fougeray of Splashes at Surf & Sand Resort, Michael Campbell of The Loft at Montage Resort, Manfred Lassahn and Adrian Legoy of Watertable at Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach, Diego Bernal of Coliseum Pool & Grill at The Resort at Pelican Hill, and Andy Arndt of Newport Beach Marriott Hotel & Spa.

A cocktail reception with silent auction started the festivities at 4:30. At 6, Shelly and I found ourselves seated at the Newport Beach Marriott table, where Chef Arndt created a sensational menu that began with kampachi (designer Hawaiian yellowtail), baby beets and citrus, paired with Nicolas Feuillatte brut reserve. A beautiful start to a beautiful meal.

Next came white asparagus, egg and wild mushroom, paired with Antica chardonnay from Napa Valley. The buttery chardonnay was perfect with this dish.

The third course was a generous piece of foie gras served with brown butter and roasted caramelized pears, paired with Au Bon Climat pinot noir. Again, a nice combination.

Our next course was venison with elderberries and black pepper, potatoes and minters lettuce, perfectly paired with Saldo zinfandel.

After the venison dish, Chef Arndt wisely created a refreshing dessert with berries, strawberry leather, croquant and sorbet, paired with Ethos late harvest riesling from Washington.

Being a chocolate lover, Shelly snuck over to the Watertable restaurant table, where the chef happily served her one of his extra-chocolate desserts.

Chef Arndt’s exceptional cuisine was a reminder that these days culinary delights abound in hotel settings.

Thanks to Title Sponsor Mike Danzi, chairman and chief executive of Legacy Pharmaceuticals International, and other sponsors and diners, the event netted nearly $500,000 for Vocational Visions, whose programs, services and personalized support develop the talents of adults with disabilities by creating pathways to employment, lifelong learning and social inclusion; and The Teen Project, which provides teenagers aging out of the foster care system the resources and support of an intact family in order to allow them to successfully transition to adulthood.

The Other Fundraiser

The OC Chefs Table had a similar setup but different chefs. A few of the noted names: Jonathan Blackford of A Restaurant, Rich Mead of Farmhouse, Michael Rossi of The Ranch Restaurant, celebrity chef Jet Tila of “Cutthroat Kitchen,” and Andrew Sutton, culinary director of the signature restaurants at Disneyland Resort, including Napa Rose.

“We’re starting with cold surf and turf, then steelhead trout, and then a course I call Duck Duck Goose—duck consume, hot smoked duck ham, and foie gras tortellini,” Chef Blackford told me. “We end with A5 beef with beef butter, and then dessert. This menu gives me a chance to do something a little different than what I do at A Restaurant.”

Chef Blackford will also be doing something a little different at CdM Restaurant, a new concept just announced by the owners of A Restaurant. He’s creating a new menu for CdM, which as its name implies, is in Corona del Mar, where it will occupy the former Crow Bar & Kitchen space. Expect the restaurant to open in late summer.

Chef Sutton was chatting with fellow chefs when I approached him to ask what he was serving his Napa Rose guests.

“We’re doing a six-course menu starting with caviar,” he replied. “Next we do kingfish, then a third course called juk, a Korean dish like risotto with liquid. We have elevated it by adding abalone, sea urchin and king crab, and we’ll serve it inside a sea urchin. Then we have roasted lamb saddle, and for dessert candied piñatas.”

He added, “The chefs we have here are the nicest guys. We never get together, so this is fun, and to do it for such a good cause is just awesome.”

The cause that night was Illumination Foundation, which works to break the cycle of homelessness in Southern California. The event raised nearly $1 million, which will go toward construction of the country’s first Recuperative Care Housing Site for children.

I didn’t stay for dinner—they were sold out—but another food writer and I strolled over to Napa Rose and enjoyed wine and appetizers in the lounge. One of the finest restaurants in Orange County, it’s my go-to spot for special occasions—or the occasional glass of wine during a Disneyland excursion.

Another Good Cause

There’s another charity culinary event coming next month that you’ll want to get tickets for soon because it sells out every year: the 11th annual Taste of the Nation on May 20 at Montage Laguna Beach to benefit Share Our Strength’s No Child Hungry campaign.

It’s one of 20 such events held throughout the country, and features many of Southern California’s top local chefs serving signature dishes on the lawn outside Studio restaurant overlooking the ocean.

Confirmed chefs so far include host chefs Craig Strong and Lee Smith of Studio, Brian Huskey of Tackle Box, Eric Samaniego of Michael’s on Naples Ristorante, Marcel Vigneron of Wolf and Beefsteak, and Bryant Taylor of Chianina Steakhouse. Just added to the chef lineup are Joe Sasto from season 15 of Bravo’s “Top Chef” who helms Michael Mina’s new Cal Mare restaurant, and “Top Chef” finalist Amar Santana of Vaca Restaurant and Broadway by Amar Santana. More chefs will be announced soon. There will also be craft cocktails and a silent auction, wine tastings and live music. I’ve been to this event in the past, and between the lovely setting and the lively cuisine, it’s a fabulous afternoon of fun for a terrific cause.

General admission from 3 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. is $250. VIP admission from 2:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. is $275. Visit events.nokid hungry.org for details and to purchase tickets.

Taste of the Nation events have raised nearly $100 million over the past 30 years for a variety of charities that work to end childhood hunger.

Scrumptious Accolades

The Golden Foodie Awards presented by the Orange County Restaurant Association each fall may have nabbed the restaurant award spotlight, but the Southern California Restaurant Writers Association, of which I’m a member, has quietly been presenting its own awards to the culinary community for 44 years.

Our 2018 awards ceremony was held last month at Orange Hill Restaurant and attended by restaurant chefs, staff and owners from throughout Southern California.

Several restaurants and individuals were honored after an impressive five-course dinner that included beef tartare, slow-cooked oro king salmon, and a beef duet of red wine braised short rib and seared strip loin.

Congratulations are in order for Thad Foret of The Winery for winning the general manager of the year award. To me, that was an easy choice, because anyone who knows Thad knows the award is well-deserved. He’s an upbeat, friendly presence at The Winery, knowledgeable about wine and cuisine, ready to do whatever it takes to ensure a memorable guest experience.

By the way, Thad participated in the Assistance League of Newport Mesa’s annual Dancing for Tomorrow’s Stars fundraiser at City National Grove of Anaheim. He was named best male dancer at the event, and helped raise several hundred thousand dollars for charity.

The Southern California Restaurant Writers has bestowed numerous awards on The Winery over the years, including maitre d’ of the year, chef de cuisine of the year, restaurateurs of the year, five-star dining award, chef of the year, sommelier of the year, the Golden Sceptre Award and the Golden Bacchus Wine Award, which it received again this year.

Other restaurants honored with a Golden Bacchus Wine Award this year: Five Crowns, Il Barone, Anaheim White House, which also won a Phoenix Award for rising from the ashes of a fire, Antonello, The Cellar, Napa Rose, The Ranch, and Steakhouse 55 at Disneyland Hotel, a hidden gem.

Oh—one more award. Chef of the year went to Adam Navidi of Oceans & Earth restaurant in Yorba Linda.

Navidi also owns Future Foods Farms in Brea. The 25-acre farm produces all organically grown products in huge greenhouses. It’s also one of the largest aquaponic farms in the state. Navidi raises tilapia there, another story.

I’ve been impressed with his sustainable farm concept, having toured the farm and eaten a formal dinner in one of the greenhouses. Part of his mission statement says that “we are proud to support sustainable agriculture and sustainable organizations as well as local farms and businesses.”

I am glad Navidi is getting the recognition he deserves.

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