By day, Joanne Culverhouse and Jenny Salberg are principals. On Monday night, they also were servers in a restaurant.
Culverhouse, principal at Laguna Beach High School, and Salberg, principal at Thurston Middle School, got a workout walking plates to hungry customers inside a packed Lumberyard Restaurant, where diners decided whose cuisine would reign supreme.
Culverhouse and Salberg teamed up against Ron LaMotte and Chris Duddy, principals of Top of the World and El Morro elementary schools, in the fourth annual Chef Challenge, a fundraiser organized by SchoolPower for the four public Laguna Beach schools. The nonprofit has raised money for the schools since 1981.
All proceeds from the $95-per-plate dinner go directly to the schools. The event has raised more than $30,000 over the previous three years. The event was the brainchild of Lumberyard owners Suzanne and Cary Redfearn, who strolled through the dining room, bringing plates to some of the 150 guests and talking to diners.
"Cary Redfearn is amazing to donate his time and resources," Culverhouse said before the first dish was brought out. "Yes, we have fun, but the bottom line is the community support. It's another example of a collaborative and wonderful community."
Both teams worked with Lumberyard chef Armando Ortega to come up with an appetizer, entrée and dessert.
Duddy and LaMotte went with smoked salmon with horseradish cream for the appetizer; a grilled New York steak with mushroom risotto for the entrée, and New York cheesecake with mixed berry sauce for dessert.
Culverhouse and Salberg chose a pumpkin and goat cheese ravioli with Brussels sprouts, turnips and orange butter for the appetizer; jumbo scallops with butternut squash puree for the entrée and a s'more for dessert.
"I am a meat-and-potatoes guy," Duddy said when asked what their inspiration was for the menu selections.
The scent of grilled meat wafted through the air as the entrées appeared. Culverhouse claimed the title in 2011 and Salberg prevailed in 2012, when the competition was between just two principals. The event expanded to all four this year.
Diners were given paper ballots upon which to cast their votes. Appetizers were worth two points; entrees three points and dessert one point.
This was Deni Christensen's first time at the Chef Challenge. The district's assistant superintendent of instructional services praised the ravioli.
"I like the vegetables," Christensen said. "They were … delicious. I wouldn't kick any of them off the plate."
Victor Guthrie, the district's director of technology, was at the same table as Christensen. He preferred the salmon.
"The rumor is that [the fish] was smoked for 24 hours," Guthrie said. "It was still moist. I am a big fan of horseradish."
Guthrie provided some perspective on the meaning of the evening: "It's fun. There's not a lot of pomp and circumstance. It gets people together to eat and everyone is laughing. I like that, coming from an Italian family."
Scott Evans and Brian Parker, both parents, sat next to each other at the bar and voted differently for the entrees.
Parker went with the scallops.
"I thought the steak was overdone," Parker said.
Evans also thought the meat was a little overcooked, but he still preferred it to the seafood.
"It was medium-rare, but I didn't [have a choice in degree of doneness] because I didn't order it," Evans said.
Gail Haglund, event chairwoman, and parent Lisa Black sat at the same table and both liked the cheesecake.
"It was light, not heavy, and melted in your mouth," Haglund said.
Black, who attended Top of the World, Thurston and Laguna Beach High and has children at Thurston and the high school, thought the s'more was too sweet. She offered a suggestion for future events.
"Perhaps have a blind-tasting so you don't know which dish belongs to [which principal]," Black said.
An hour and 45 minutes after the first appetizers went out, event organizers counted ballots and the winners were Culverhouse and Salberg with 444 votes to LaMotte and Duddy's 432 votes.
The winners received white chef's hats with "2013 SchoolPower Chefs Champion" embroidered on them. Duddy and LaMotte received a pack of pens, notebook and mini-clipboard. LaMotte and Duddy will also have to be personal assistants to either Culverhouse or Salberg for one day.
Salberg and Culverhouse took a victory lap around the dining room to conclude a boisterous night of food and conversation.
SchoolPower's next fundraiser is a dinner and dance at the Montage Laguna on May 4. For more information on SchoolPower, visit lbschoolpower.org.