Celebrities Nosh as Judges Sulk in All Their Sobriety

The scene made for a toothsome twist on Oliver's tale: Hundreds of exquisitely dressed men and women held out their plates to white-coated chefs and said, in effect, "Please, sir, I would like some more."

The oysters flowed like oysters and the wine like wine at Saturday's annual "Celebrities Cook for the UCSD Cancer Center," given for a sold-out attendance of 570 in the Sheraton Harbor Island's Champagne Ballroom. The seventh in a string of annual assaults on some of the city's better-known waistlines, this year's extravaganza was dubbed "A Vintage Celebration" in honor of the California wineries that brought along cases and cases of their better efforts.

Charity chow-downs have become familiar enough, partly because of the success of "Celebrities Cook," which remains the local granddaddy of them all, and continues to rank as the most successful in both attendance and net proceeds (Saturday's nosh-out hauled in about $125,000).

Charm in the Format

The charm lies in the format, which always opens with a kind of show-and-tell cooking exhibit aimed straight at the taste buds of the gastronomic jet set. In some years, as many as 16 mini-kitchens grouped at either end of the room have offered exotic tidbits to an eager clientele; these traditionally have been manned by gifted local amateurs in competition for the favor of a panel of judges, whose ranks over the years have included such culinary luminaries as the late James Beard.

The 1988 chairman, Pam Wischkaemper, and her food-wise committee chose to offer a tasty variation on the theme by staffing the booths with professional chefs, four of them non-competing practitioners from California wineries, and seven contestants from some of the county's best restaurants. Each mini-kitchen was sponsored by a winery, and all offered tastes of the vintage that each dish had been designed to complement. Considering that champagne was tossed into the mix, it made for a bubblingly bibulous prelude to the evening of dinner and dancing.

Other than judges, contestants and committee members, few witnessed the calm that preceded the storm that nearly swamped the room when the doors were thrown open and the guests lined up for tastes of the braided salmon in basil sauce offered by the John Culbertson Winery's Dennis Barry, and the grilled ratatouille dished up by Richard Alexei of Monticello Cellars. The bulk of the work--slicing, slashing, dicing, hashing, ricing, mashing--was done early in the day so that the judges could get theirs first.

The judges, if truth be told, were rather disgruntled at the fact that Prohibition had been decreed at the judges' table, especially since the event was such a specific celebration of the grape. Marian Burros, noted food writer for the New York Times, made it clear that she disliked being banished from the bacchanal.

"Next time, I hope they'll give us wine with the food," she said. "When we heard this was going to be a 'dry' meal, we were all going to revolt, but our good manners won out." After making this comment, Burros glanced rather pointedly at the huge bunches of grapes (convincingly arranged balloons threaded with twinkling lights) that hung overhead.

The rest of the panel consisted of well-known oenophiles, including San Diegans Tom Gable and Tawfiq and Richel Khoury. The others were vintners Barney and Belle Rhodes of Bella Oaks Vineyards, and Robert Mondavi and his wife, Margrit Biever.

Among the competing chefs were the Sheraton's Bob Brody, Scott Meskan of George's at the Cove, Thomas Dowling of the Rancho Bernardo Inn, Catherine White of Piret M and Deborah Schneider, chef at La Gran Tapa, but, for the nonce, part of the team representing Dobson's. All seemed to find the evening both amusing and a genuine change of pace, if no less demanding than their usual duties.

A Festive Athmosphere

Brody, who also had to supervise both the elaborate "Celebrities Cook" banquet and four other banquets, seemed to mean it when he said, "This whole thing is just fun." Brody's blue corn pancakes with prawns and cilantro lemon cream won second place.

McDonald looked unconcerned by the scores of hands reaching for samples of her morel mushrooms stuffed with lobster mousse, which disappeared as quickly as she plated them. "You never get to meet your customers when you're back in the kitchen," she said. "This is a slightly more festive atmosphere than what I usually work in."

Will Howard of La Jolla's Issimo, whose oysters with watercress mousse tied Schneider's dish for third place, admitted to being somewhat harried by the crush. "I'm glad my waiters don't grab like this," he said.

The grand prize went to Mille Fleur's Martin Woesle for his sensuous duck liver mousse, garnished with an aspic flavored with Quady Vineyard's Essencia wine.

Guests had tastes of all, and then sat down to an Audrey Geisel-designed menu of ratatouille-stuffed crepes, rolled veal loin and substantial sundaes glamorized with such toppings as "Fudge Decadence" and "Polynesian Passion." This last put everyone in the mood for dancing to the Bill Green Orchestra.

The evening's caloric theme brought differing comments from participants. Cancer Center director Dr. Mark Green, asked to remark on the topic of pairing food with funds, said "Eating is something that people have always been excited about." Chairman Wischkaemper added that, "A fund-raiser like this is the best way to raise money, because food makes everybody happy. When you have wine to go along with it, it makes everything even better."

Popular UCSD professor Paul Saltman, whose liberal views on "junk food" have been treated as the ultimate in iconoclasm by the "natural foods" set, offered an observation with an observably Twinkie-like twinkle in his eye. "There are probably people here who would rather have a Twinkie than some of this food," he said. "What does that tell you about the metaphysics of nutrition?"

The guest list included event founder Anne Otterson and her husband, Bill; master of ceremonies Lois Stanton and her husband, Bill; Charmaine and Maurice Kaplan; Susan and Harry Summers; Betty and Walt Zable; Mary and Bruce Hazard; Liselotte and Michael Terkel; cancer center foundation board President David Rubel and his wife, Shirley; Harriet and Bud Levi; Jeanne Jones with Don Breitenberg; Edie and Dean Greenberg; Jerrie Strom; Fran Jenkins; Marie and Merle Olesen; Cheryl and Bob Rohde; Gigi and Bill Haynor, and Bea and Bob Epsten.

LA JOLLA--The celebrity chefs weren't the only fund-raising volunteers to find themselves gamboling through the fields of culinary expertise last week. Friday, the 19 interior decorators involved with "Designers Showcase 1988," the 15th annual "Past to Present" benefit, took a metaphorical turn in the kitchen by simmering a sow's ear into something far tastier.

Jointly sponsored by the San Diego Historical Society and the San Diego Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), Past to Present also benefited both groups (in ASID's case, the funds will support educational programs). The event always showcases a once-grand old house that has been completely refurbished by ASID members; this year, the scene of the former crime is a mansion at 6211 Camino de la Costa, an again-splendid place that long fell victim to 1950s schlock and definitely needed the handsome touches given it by the willing designers. (The place will be open to the public daily through May 22; call the San Diego Historical Society for details.)

This Old House

Friday's black tie preview offered a prime first glimpse of the remodel along with cocktails, extravagant hors d'oeuvres and the chance to dance on a partially tented driveway. The big draw, of course, was the house, which showed just what can happen when 19 decorators (most teamed with associates) are allowed to install bric-a-brac and wallpaper with abandon. The tour, in the words of one guest, was vastly more exciting than watching paint dry. Design chairman Enid Arckless put the situation well. "It's like somebody waved a magic wand, everything turned out beautifully," she said.

The house, which is for sale (in the $3 million range, if you've got some cash to spare), enjoys a nifty view, and designers with view-endowed rooms certainly utilized it. Those with rooms at the back of the house had to be even more clever, though; Lynn Crosby Harland transformed a tiny space that is the upper half of a former elevator shaft into the cozy "Ladies' Hobby Room," and Wayne Kirts installed an autographed photo of Cary Grant in the equally cozy den.

Preview chairman Carol Dickinson claimed that her role in the evening was easy, other than praying for a temporary discontinuation of the rain that had steadily soaked the city for several days (her prayers were answered). Overall event chairman (for the historical society) Jean Rudd said that her group found the house, but that the designers were completely on their own when it came to refurbishing it. "We on the event committee got control of all the wonderful details, like the portable toilets," said Rudd.

All the roaming upstairs-and-down made most of the preview patrons hungry for the coconut-breaded shrimp and fruit-filled crepes; those who over-indulged worked it off by reclimbing the stairs or taking a few turns on the dance floor.

The committee included general co-chair Klonie Kunzel, Barbara Aiken, Janine Thierry Brown, Debra Casbo, Dee Cabana, Carolyn Waggoner, Walter Nelson, Arline Hales, Susan McCleod, Peggy Spanniga, Jane Smith, Barbara Straker and Karen Kissane.

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