I couldn’t make it to the Star Chefs and Vintners Gala in SF this year, so I did the next best thing: I sent two seasoned eaters in my stead. Today, our favorite foodie daddy, Ben Rhau, shares the highlights from noshing his way through this glitzy affair. I’ll tell you right now — two words that threw me into a fit of food-envy: Foie Pops. Yes, really. When not licking his spoon (or sucking on foie pops) for LMS, Ben tells tales of food, neuroses, and memory at You Fed A Baby Chili? He has never lost a sock.
Also, a big thank you to the lovely and talented Danielle Tsi (of Beyond the Plate) for capturing the moments in mouth-watering pixels.
This extravagant, one-night event is the largest annual fundraiser for Meals on Wheels (MOWSF), which provides homebound seniors in San Francisco nutritious meals, daily human contact and supportive services. Last year’s gala raised over $1.24 million, supporting the delivery of over 300,000 meals.
Over 900 generous, hungry, and impeccably dressed guests arrived at the gala shortly after 5PM, surveying the festival pavilion with purpose. Hors d’oeuvres and wine were on the agenda, with a stripe of silent auction items separating two sides of a bustling floor. Not ones to shy from collecting culinary first impressions, we began our spoon-licking with a bang from Fish & Farm’s takeaway outfit, American Box.
A bacon tater tot, with housemade steak sauce. Because really, after all these years, bacon is still a welcome +1 to virtually any dish. So lovely to see you once again, bacon. It’s been, what—five hours, at least?
Not to be outdone by its cured cousin, slowly cooked pork bellies were also in appropriate abundance. Our favorite, by far, was this one, with spring pea salad, presented proudly by Chef Josh Thomsen of Meritage at The Claremont.
We spotted large crowds surrounding Nathan Beriau of The Ritz-Carlton, and, with sharpened elbows, found out why. One of two exceptional preparations of foie gras, his took the form of a chilled lollipop. Here, he plates meticulously with vanilla powder, vanilla salt, two types of peppercorns, and cherry. The temperature and mousse-like, almost airy texture of the foie felt refreshing, and the vanilla gave an unexpected suggestion of breakfast cereal. Which, incidentally, we’d be happy to eat in this form every morning.
Kim Alter, from The Plate Shop, paired a smear of foie gras with strawberry syrup, which struck us as a skillful play on butter with jam—reinforcing our notion that its consumption need not be restricted to dinner.
We couldn’t very well leave our side of the room without visiting the charismatic Chris Cosentino, King of Limbs (and other animal parts) at Incanto. Our reward: quenelles of lamb tartare with anchovy and mint, a smear of mint char added to approximate the sensation of a cooked dish.
And in case our mothers are reading: We also ate our vegetables. It didn’t take much arm-twisting when we saw Mark Gordon and Philip Busacco’s (Terzo) fava bean puree. Bonus points for nailing the hors d’oeuvre form factor. A bite-sized flatbread chip with the vibrant puree and marinated feta. I’d like to say that we sensibly stopped eating here. But that would be a lie, wouldn’t it? We “sampled” as many of the 46 tables as we could before being whisked to a press meeting at 6:45 in the Belly of the Beast.
Having once attended a large banquet at the Grand Hall of the Ferry Building, I can safely say that plating for an event of that scale was among the most spectacular things I’d witnessed. Dinner at this gala was three times that size. We were permitted 15 minutes of non-intrusive wandering, enough to take in the precisely orchestrated symmetry of plating tables, once again under the general supervision of Chef Chair Nancy Oakes (Boulevard).
I was also struck by the team of servers, at once casual, and moments later as focused as thoroughbreds at a starting gate. “It’s going to get really busy in there soon. You know that, right?” That was our polite cue to get the hell out of the kitchen.
Nine All-Star teams of chefs each cooked a three-course meal for about 100 people. You might think that, as lowly food-bloggers, we’d draw the shortest straw, if such a thing exists. But with this lineup, we hardly had room to complain:
With “only” three courses, dinner gave us a momentary, psychological break from the onslaught of flavors, textures, and styles we experienced at the reception. A live auction also took place here, made more colorful this year with the hiring of professional bid spotters in cowboy hats. The most frenzied bidding took place for a private dinner (for six) with Melissa Perello, noted chef of the white-hot Frances. Two enthusiastic bidders won a doubled lot for $22,000 each. Not a shabby haul for a pair of 6-tops.
Before we knew it, it was time for dessert: 20 stations, another silent auction, and a stampede of well-watered sweet seekers. Leaving nothing to chance, we made a beeline for pastry luminary William Werner, of Tell Tale Preserve Co. Though we couldn’t tactfully try all of the dozen or so desserts that they offered, we were duly impressed with the Valrhona Manjari chocolate mousse with a raspberry sphere.
We also couldn’t resist the mad scientist duo of Josh Heiskell and Teague Moriarty of young Union Square darling, Sons and Daughters. A candy cap mushroom and red wine cake with black truffle mousse, cinnamon crÃ¨me anglaise, red wine gel, roasted porcini streusel, and Douglas fir styrofoam. Whew! We gave up filling out the unabridged scorecard on this one, instead choosing to summarize our reaction as: “More, please.”
Our favorite bite of the evening was suitably among our last: a very strong impression left by current Top Chef pastry king, Yigit Pura (Taste Catering). Dubbed “Gimlet and Pearls,” Yigit gave us a Just Desserts finale flashback with his lime cucumber sorbet, yogurt, and tapioca pearls. Elegant, thoughtful, and wonderfully welcoming at a time when we otherwise had a difficult time summoning hunger.
Once again, we made a valiant effort to work our way through the entire floor, and were continually struck with varying degrees of wow.
Massive kudos to the organizers, chefs, and staff for this enormous, flawlessly-executed event. Their passion is clear, and the impact of this event on our local seniors is measurable and real. We’re already looking forward to see who’ll be serving next May.
Photo Credit: Danielle Tsi Photography