Two chefs are strolling along the downtown streets. "Does Jimmy come to your back door?" asks one, miming a jerky little walk. "That's not Jimmy," replies the other, picking up the same jerky walk and miming a cap on the head. "That's Edward. He's been coming for years. We make him sandwiches out of the ends of the pate."
Jimmy/Edward is at the back door of every eating establishment in America, but charity walks in through the front door, too.
"We get two or three requests a day," says Tom Kaplan of Spago. Stephan Pyles of Routh Street Cafe in Dallas says, "We could do benefits a couple of nights a week."
Could, and often do, for when you're in the restaurant business, saying no can be difficult. How can you refuse the request of a customer who habitually drops hundreds of dollars on dinner, especially when the request is made in the name of a good cause?
But chefs do more than simply ante up when they are asked for charity. They are becoming increasingly activist, banding together to raise money for causes in which they believe. Last week in separate charity events in San Francisco and New York, chefs from all over the country raised more than $1 million. And this time they were not merely contributors but the driving force behind both events.
Although some chefs cooked for both dinners, the two events could hardly have been more different. They not only raised money for different causes, but they did it in different styles. There was one thing, however, shared by both: a similar spirit.
"Sometimes we ask ourselves why we are doing this," says New York food consultant Clark Wolf, who was involved in San Francisco's Aid & Comfort benefit and New York's Chefs Tribute to James Beard to Benefit Citymeals-on-Wheels. "The answer is easy. We've just got to. The food community has developed enormous impact, there's no way the government can cover every base, and we simply have to help out."
"San Francisco has always been known for great artists, great compassion and great events," said Joel Grey, as he opened the evening by singing "Wilkommen" from "Cabaret." By anybody's estimation, Aid & Comfort, the San Francisco Restaurant Benefit for People Fighting AIDS, was a rousing success on all three fronts. "This isn't just a dinner," said the woman sitting next to me. "This is an evening I'll be talking about for the rest of my life."
It was as if the entire city of San Francisco had been looking for a way to do something for people who are suffering from acquired immune deficiency syndrome. When Vince Calcagno, owner of Zuni Cafe, decided to take action, he discovered that chefs all over the city were eager to pitch in.
They were to find that they were not alone. Writers, printers, artists and performers wanted to be part of the event. Before they were through, the mayor had proclaimed Aid & Comfort Day, and in addition to a nine-course sit-down dinner for more than 1,000 people, they had a full-scale concert on their hands. For good measure, they threw in an extraordinary portfolio of prints, poems and recipes to commemorate the event.
From the moment you entered Pier 3 at San Francisco's Fort Mason Center for the $250-a-head dinner, it was clear that this was going to be more than just another rubber-chicken dinner.
Japanese set designer Eiko Ishioka (she was responsible for the look of the film "Mishima") had worked wonders with the enormous barren space. Walking through a black Mylar tunnel, you passed candles floating on a man-made pond. Then you burst out into a bright white space where parachutes dangled from the ceiling and the floor was painted a vivid red. Hundreds of waiters (so many waiters from the various restaurants volunteered that organizers had to cut it off at 350) circulated with champagne and hors d'oeuvres while music played.
The room was so filled with good feeling that, as the evening wore on, it hardly seemed astonishing that the restaurants could create food in a space that has no kitchens (four were improvised on the spot, each capable of making 250 dishes at a time) or that the food was as good as any you've ever eaten in a restaurant.
Nor did it seem amazing that waiters who had never worked together were dashing the food to the tables so efficiently that it came out in uninterrupted waves.
I know there had been problems with deciding the menu, finding enough plates and forks and bowls, even with simple logistics like getting someone to iron the performers' clothes; none of that showed. The evening ran so smoothly that the whole pier seemed to lift off like a huge balloon and float out over the Bay. When the entertainment (televised on KQED) began, all 1,040 people exploded into applause.
San Francisco audiences are notoriously generous toward performers, but this time it went both ways.
The entertainment (the producers who donated their services were Bill Graham, Tom Luddy of Zoetrope Productions, Michael Smuin and the San Francisco Opera Assn.) was another collaborative success. Linda Ronstadt opened with an exquisite version of "Desperado," and for the next few hours the entertainers and the audience seemed to be breathing together.
People cried during the duet from "Romeo and Juliet" by dancers Evelyn Cisneros and Jim Sohm. They cheered Bobby McFerrin's 10-minute version of "The Wizard of Oz" (he sang all the parts). They laughed when Shirley MacLaine said, "May I say that is the best dinner I've had in 4,000 years," and gasped when she went on with statements like "Death is really just a transition to a great moment of exquisite expression." This at an AIDS benefit!
There was an outpouring of emotion when Chanticleer came onto the stage to sing "Lean on Me." The hundreds of people who had worked on the event joined them on the stage, clapping and stamping their feet, and the entire room rose with them, stamping and clapping too.
And that was just the beginning. Boz Scaggs did a long set with the help of Carlos Santana and Herbie Hancock. After they had rocked the room, Cesar's Latin All-Stars took up the beat. Nobody wanted the evening to end.
The restaurateurs were thrilled with the success of their venture, but a little disappointed with how much they raised. At last count, about half a million dollars were in the coffers and there are still proceeds to come from the unsold portfolios. (Five hundred were printed at $175 each. With contributions from the likes of Wayne Thiebaud, Richard Diebenkorn, M.F.K. Fisher, Calvin Trillin and Diana Kennedy and each page having been printed by a different printer, they should not have much trouble finding buyers for the rest.) "We should have charged more," said Alice Waters. "We wanted to raise at least a million dollars."
Are they thinking of doing another event next year? Waters smiled wearily. The restaurateurs donated not only their own labor, but food, money and anything else that was needed. (Another chef admitted she hadn't been to bed for four nights.) "I don't know. Now that we know what we are doing, the next event would be easier." Waters suddenly smiled. "(Artist) David Ireland had a great idea for decorating the pier next year. He was talking about getting a hundred yellow cars and driving them into a circle around the space. Wouldn't that be fabulous?"
The conversation about the yellow cars actually took place in New York. It was two days later and Waters was at Rockefeller Center, preparing for yet another charity dinner.
This one, however, was different. Originated three years ago when Jonathan Waxman (Jams, Bud's, Hulot's) and Larry Forgione (An American Place, Morgan's) decided to celebrate James Beard's 82nd birthday with a star-studded benefit for Citymeals-on-Wheels, the charity that Beard helped to found, the $350-a-head event has become the major chef's showcase in the country. Beard died a few days before the first celebration, but the chefs carried on; over the last three years, they have raised over a million dollars to feed the homebound elderly of New York. (This year's event added $500,000 to the total.) By now, they are so well organized that, on the afternoon of the event, there were chefs wandering around Rockefeller Center complaining they didn't have anything to do.
They had already done plenty. The chefs had been wined and dined for days. This year, a national search for new talent was launched, so in addition to "chefs emeritus" like Waters, Wolfgang Puck, Mark Miller, Stephan Pyles and Bradley Ogden, there were "chef stars," some of whom had never before been to New York. The city rolled out the red carpet--rooms at the best hotels, dinner at the best restaurants . . . even the weather cooperated. When the chefs went on a late-night boat ride around the end of the island, the lights of the city shimmered in the summer air; with music and dancing down below, drinks on deck and an endless flow of food, it was like a scene out of one of those glamorous movies from the '40s. As the boat came up on the Statue of Liberty, the almost-full moon hanging over her crown, even jaded old New Yorkers were stunned into silence. From there, the chefs went on to drinks at 21 (it's still one of the world's great bars); some even went on to supper and then to an after-hours club.
"I'd give anything to have been born in New York," John Sedlar (St. Estephe) admitted the next day, unpacking his chocolate chiles rellenos with hazelnut butter cream from the boxes in which they had made the trip ("in their own passenger seat") from LAX. "They even came here from the hotel in an air-conditioned limo," said the chef.
Sedlar was coached by Wolfgang Puck--as each of the chef stars was helped by one of the old hands. It was just one of the little things that made the evening go so smoothly. At Aid & Comfort, the paint was still wet when the evening began, but this feast glided by without a glitch. There were speeches by Mayor Edward I. Koch ("Not a penny goes to administrative costs--wouldn't it be great if you could do that in your business?") and by the lieutenant governor of Oklahoma, Robert S. Kerr, who flew up for the evening. "Oklahoma is not known for its food," said John Bennett, the Oklahoma City chef, "so the state went nuts when I was chosen."
Most of the diners, faced with such a plethora of wonderful food, seemed to go a little nuts as well. It was an all-star feast; with 20 chefs cooking, it was hard to know where to turn. Some people just drank. Others attempted to taste everything, juggling plates and glasses as they wandered through the outdoor plaza, through the stations of the kitchen, around the dining rooms.
Faced with such abundance, the simplest dishes become the most appealing. Were the ribs cooked by Bill Collins of the Texas Pit Barbecue in St. Thomas really as good as they tasted? I think so, but I know that these smoky, meaty bones were a relief from the richness of cream of oysters Rockefeller soup (Frank Brigtsen, New Orleans), black bear and wild mushroom ragout (Jack Czarnecki, Reading, Pa.) and grits cakes in Chardonnay cream sauce with morels, asparagus and country ham (Benjamin Barker, Durham, N.C.). I found myself lingering over the anchovied spinach with chiles made by Leslee Reis (Evanston, Ill.), Debbie Madison's (formerly of San Francisco's Greens) spring salad and Gordon Naccarato's (once of Michael's, now chef/owner of his own Aspen restaurant) delightful Chippewa salmon sandwich.
There was food, music and revelry. There was a giant moon. By midnight, most of the guests had gone home, but the chefs were still dancing. "Don't they ever get tired?" asked a journalist, who had stayed up all of the previous night with one particularly manic group of chefs. Apparently not. Work over for the evening, the chefs went off to a disco called the Big Kahuna.
"A million bucks in a couple of days," said Bradley Ogden, who had been involved with both events. "I feel great."
MENU FOR THE AID & COMFORT BENEFIT
Crescent moon turnovers by Barbara Tropp, China Moon Cafe
Smoked salmon roulades by Jean-Pierre Moulle, Pierre at Meridien
Antipasto of prosciutto and summer fruit by Rick O'Connell, Rosalie's
Stuffed miniature vegetables by Hubert Keller, Fleur de Lys
Savory focaccia by Joyce Goldstein, Square One
Tuna carpaccio with ginger cream by Jeremiah Tower, Stars
Grilled salmon with fresh herbs by Patricia Unterman, Hayes Street Grill
Stuffed cucumber soup by Cecilia Chiang, the Mandarin
Grilled lamb chops with roasted plum tomatoes by Bradley Ogden, Campton Place
Potato and artichoke gratin by Judy Rodgers, Zuni Cafe
Garden Salad by Annie Somerville, Greens
Berry shortcake by Cindy Pawlcyn, Fog City Diner
Lemon roll with white chocolate and rum sauce, Jim Dodge, Fournou's Ovens
Candies by Alice Waters, Chez Panisse
Cream of oysters Rockefeller soup by Frank Brigtsen, Brigtsen's Restaurant, New Orleans
Cold marinated julienne of fish by Carolyn Flinn, the Sea Grill, New York
Pan-fried Louisiana crab cakes by Dean Fearing, the Mansion at Turtle Creek, Dallas
Chippewa salmon sandwich by Gordon Naccarato, Gordon's, Aspen
Summer vegetable salad with pickled onion by Deborah Madison
Grilled lamb salad with grilled chayote and jicama by Brendan Walsh, Arizona 206, New York
Salmon with cranberry puree by Jimella Lucas, the Ark, Nahcotta, Wash.
Roasted ribeye of pork with clams and garlic sauce by Jasper White, Restaurant Jasper, Boston
Potted duck legs with asparagus and morels by Michael Foley, Printer's Row, Chicago
Braised ragout of wild mushrooms and black bear by Jack Czarnecki, Joe's Restaurant, Reading
Cowboy's tallgrass bobwhite quail hickory-grilled with country spring greens by John Bennett, John Bennett's Catering, Oklahoma City
Grilled ribeye of young lamb with anchovied spinach by Leslee Reis, Cafe Provencal, Evanston
Grilled lamb leg with red chile sauce and green chile cream by Robert del Grande, Cafe Annie, Houston
Spare ribs by Bill Collins of Texas Pit Barbecue on the Waterfront, St. Thomas
Grits cakes in chardonnay cream with morels, asparagus and country ham by Benjamin Barker, Magnolia Grill, Durham
Dark chocolate chiles rellenos with hazelnut buttercream and coffee creme anglaise by John Sedlar, St. Estephe, Manhattan Beach
Tapioca zabaglione custard with raspberries by Nanci Main, the Ark, Nahcotta
Cheesecake with warm fruit compote by Rebecca Naccarato, Rebecca's, Aspen
Tropical fruit soup by Larry Elbert, California Host, Los Altos
Almond cookie basket by Tony Ciolino, American Festival Cafe, New York