Of all the “charity eat-a-thons” in this town, my favorite by far is the Chef Celebration, a series of extraordinary banquets crafted by some of the county’s top chefs and held at several of the finest (and most comfortable) restaurants in the area. At each dinner, five chefs collaborate on a five-course menu, each taking on one or two dishes. It’s fun for them to work together, and fun for us to eat the brilliant results. The price per dinner is $65, plus beverages and tip, with $35 of that amount tax-deductible as a charitable contribution. (What a deal!) An optional matched wine-flight of two-ounce pours for each course is $18. For more menu information and reservations, please contact host restaurants directly by phone or email or visit chefcelebration.org.
As a foodie, I have many reasons for loving this event — most of them somewhat selfish. Not only are these dinners probably the best restaurant meals you’ll eat all year, but the Chef Celebration raises money for a cause that ultimately benefits the whole San Diego dining public. The money goes into a scholarship fund that sends midlevel working chefs with at least two years of restaurant experience (typically cooks, line chefs, and sous-chefs) to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in Napa for a week, to take intensive courses in culinary areas and techniques where they feel a need for more education. When they return, they bring their new skills and ideas to your table.
Among the early scholarship beneficiaries were Damaso Lee, who went on to become head chef at Trattoria Acqua (and host-kitchen of one of this year’s dinners), and Hanis Cavin of Kensington Grill, who at that time was working at Deborah Helms’s now-defunct Mixx, a homey, bohemian sort of place in Hillcrest. “I chose to go to Greystone in Napa Valley,” Cavin recalls, “and I took an advanced charcuterie course. For a chef, it’s pure heaven, because it’s working with all the less-desirable pieces, learning how to make them be desirable. I had an excellent teacher. Made you really see the potential of every piece of product, whether it be a scrap of celery or the cheeks of a cow — that all of it can be edible. Of course, that attitude stayed with me and helped me in the rest of my career. It helps you stay in business. Instead of throwing away something, you say, ‘Maybe I can make a soup of this or a pâté out of that.’ I lucked out and ate out at French Laundry that week. It’s really hard to go up against that week in my life. It exposed my eyes to everything that can happen with food and to people as old as I am now still feeling the passion for cooking, still loving what they do every day — as I still do.”
In the early years, some of the scholarships were for longer periods, farther afield: One chef went to the New England Culinary Institute, another to Paris. They never returned. (How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?) Now, the foundation’s board of directors probes candidates closely for a commitment to work here. They’ve also made a formal alliance with the CIA for a 15 percent reduction in tuition and room and board, and the scholarships are exclusively for study there.
The banquets themselves are true delights — calm, comfortable, exquisitely delicious. They aren’t society events — they’re foodie events. You don’t need to flash designer duds nor conform to the socialite norm in some pricey pastel suit from Saks. (You’re just going to a nice restaurant.) Nor do you have to jostle with the hungry hordes, as you do at those vast charity eat-o-ramas with dozens of chefs serving wee bites to huge crowds balancing small paper plates in one hand, wine glasses in the other, with nowhere to sit, and frantically competing for celebrity-chef nibbles. Those events can be interesting — but they’re not particularly happy meals; in fact, some of the food served can be remarkably disappointing. Here, in contrast, you reserve a table for whatever time you want dinner, sit down, and enjoy five courses of amazing, luxurious dishes that are generally not on the regular menus. At the Celebrations, the chefs can freely unleash their creativity without having to dumb down their ideas for timid-tummied tourists or conventioneers. They’re the best in the business, simultaneously cooperating and competing with each other to do their best work. You’ll even get to meet them face to face when they come out to mingle.
They’re also able to serve more luxurious ingredients than they might use on a daily basis, as you’ll see from the menus we were able to gather by press time. “It’s really a culinary extravaganza,” says current board of directors president Jeff Rossman, chef of Terra Restaurant in Hillcrest. “Every time I’ve done it, the chefs go crazy with the menu items. For $65, it’s an unbelievable deal. A lot of the purveyors donate ingredients. It’s a good symbiotic relationship. And some restaurant owners donate out of the coffers. That’s how we feel about helping our own, to try and send the line cooks and sous-chefs and pastry chefs up to Napa, to come back with some great ideas to help San Diego. We think it’s one of the only events of its kind.”
The Chef Celebrations were founded 13 years ago by Ed Moore, of the Third Corner. At that time, the dinners were held in spring, twice a week for about six weeks, all of them staged at Moore’s restaurant Thee Bungalow (now sold to the Cohn Restaurant Group). Over time, other restaurant owners were eager to participate and share the workload (and cachet), so eventually the event evolved into today’s “movable feast.” With Moore in semiretirement, he was eager to hand over the reigns as board president a couple of years ago; Jeff Rossman was willing to take them.
The way it works is the chef of each host restaurant assembles his or her team of chefs — chefs with compatible cooking styles and personalities, often from restaurants in the same geographic area. (Given the long, late hours chefs work, who can they pal around with but other chefs?) Some team leaders negotiate who gets to cook which course with their team members; others hand out assignments. Then the participating chefs explode with ideas for their courses, emailing back and forth. The team leaders coordinate the final choices so that no two dishes in a meal will repeat the same flavors.