The event: Contestants in the "Global Gourmet Games" battled it out Saturday by assessing the ingredients in appetizers, calculating the calories in main courses and determining the fat content in desserts served at an international feast at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The congenial competition, which awarded prizes for enthusiasm in addition to high scores, did more than educate guests about foods. The event also raised $3.3 million for Faster Cures, a center of the Milken Institute dedicated to speeding and improving medical research.
The scene: Lest anyone doubt that financier Michael Milken, acting as the night's emcee, wears many hats, gala guests watched him switch headgear throughout the evening. And although most questions involved foods, in one instance teams earned points for correctly guessing the origin of Milken's bright red topper from Tibet.
The teams: Paula Abdul said she didn't think herself a food expert, but her table host Richard Merkin, chief executive of Heritage Provider Network, said that if the team had listened to her suggestions, its scores would be higher. As a vegan, former NBA star John Salley may not have tried all the foods, but as an owner of Vegan Vine Wines, he understood wines better than most.
Four-time Gourmet Games champion Stephen Cloobeck, chairman of Diamond Resorts International, shared his secret of success, a belief in "human capital." And so this year, he stacked his team with a chef, sommelier and mixologist.
Other players included Guess Chairman Maurice Marciano, Bombardier Executive Chair Pierre Beaudoin, Hyatt hotel heir Anthony Pritzker, AARP Chief Executive Jo Ann Jenkins, "Blue Bloods" producer Leonard Goldberg, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, former California Gov. Gray Davis and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
The cuisine: Who would have guessed that papaya is classified as a berry? Or that cookies could have a higher fat content than Black Forest cake? There were no obvious answers to the night's questions, mostly because in preparing the foods, cookbook author and chef Beth Ginsberg -- working behind the scenes with 25 chefs, pastry chefs and cooks -- didn't make the contest easy.
"We do tricks," Ginsberg said, explaining that the rich-looking cake had been made from low-fat cocoa, egg whites and natural cane sugar. And if the ricotta-filled cannoli seemed lighter than some other desserts, she assured they were not, because she dipped the ends in chocolate and pistachio nuts.
"The Games are supposed to be fun," Ginsberg said. "We're raising money for a really good charity and the idea is for people to have a good time. So we play around with the ingredients." Ginsberg included a platter of crown roast of lamb with potatoes and vegetables among the five different main courses. "It was so 'Game of Thrones,'" she said.
The numbers: Tickets began at $2,500 for the 360 guests, tables ranged to $100,000 and the final tally included proceeds from a live auction and additional donations, all earmarked for improving the medical research system and speeding up the process of getting effective new medicines to patients.
To note: The event kicked off the Milken Institute Global Conference (now through Wednesday), at which 3,500 people from 55 countries and 41 states will attend sessions with 650 of the world's leading visionaries, sharing their thoughts on health, finance, philanthropy, technology, government and other topics.