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‘Gourmet Fantastique’ Is a Feast for the Eyes. . . : . . . but This Edible Art’s Beauty Is Only Skin Deep

Max Jacobson is The Times restaurant critic for Orange County.

Edible art as food was the apparent theme at Sunday evening’s Les Toques Blanches Gourmet Fantastique at Le Meridien in Newport Beach, staged for the benefit of the American Cancer Society. And although the efforts of several well-known area chefs were apparent, the dinner itself was not entirely satisfying.

There is a huge difference between presentation and preparation in the food industry, and chefs often find that they cannot have it both ways. Sunday evening’s group certainly did not.

The eight chefs responsible are members of the California chapter of Les Toques Blanches Internationale, who have formed a team to compete at the 17th International Culinary Art Exhibition, held in October in Frankfurt, West Germany. The team will be sponsored by Carnation, so it is no surprise to learn that Carnation’s own executive chef, Roberto Gerometta, has been designated team captain. The other chefs involved are either executive hotel or corporate chefs, all with impressive resumes. Sunday’s event served as a kind of dress rehearsal for the competition. And therein lay most of the problems.

Food prepared for these culinary competitions is judged more for appearance than for taste, and on that score the dinner was a rousing success. Guests were feted at a champagne reception under a giant ice carrousel, created by Takehiko Yoshioka of Yoshi’s Ice Carvings. The piece, two beautifully sculpted monoliths worthy of Sapporo’s Winter Carnival, elicited the oohs and ahs just as they were supposed to. Underneath the carvings, hors d’oeuvres were spread lavishly on a series of buffet tables. They, too, were magnificent--to look at.

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All of the standard bearers of culinary art, terrines , galantines , roulades , pates , pinwheels, toasts, and stuffed fishes were on hand in full regalia and living color. And as always with these displays, no one was sure if they were supposed to eat them or not. Most were tasty, but all were covered with an unappetizingly rubberized aspic. This technique is used to preserve the shape and color of a presentation during a long competition, such as the chefs have been tirelessly preparing for. And it is entirely inappropriate for a formal party.

After the hourlong reception, guests were led to their impressively decorated tables. On each table was a magnificent terra cotta centerpiece with trailing ivy. Swans of blown sugar and little boxes made of edible chocolate added charm and elegance. I was ready to hand out the gold medals myself--until I began to eat.

The first course was a light tomato consomme with tiny profiteroles made from garlic and fresh herbs, created by chef Gerometta himself. I found the soup pretty to look at, but on the sharp side from a healthy dose of pepper. It might also have benefited from more tomato in the stock. All in all it was not bad, accompanied by a crisp, spicy 1986 Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc “20th anniversary selection.”

Ironically, at my table was Michel Richard, chef and owner of Los Angeles’ Citrus restaurant. Richard, one of the evening’s hosts, happens to be one of the only chefs in California who has successfully brought off the marriage between the eye and the palate. One couldn’t have helped wishing he had doffed his tuxedo and clambered behind the stove himself. Especially when the next course arrived.

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Chef Michael Shafer of Anaheim’s Doubletree Hotel had prepared a Richard-like dish, a colorful eggplant and bell pepper terrine with warm salsa, a lovely palette of yellows, oranges and blacks. But what he hadn’t done, and what Richard would always have, was remove the skin from the eggplant. The terrine, as a result, ended up being slightly bitter, not at all the delight it might have been. Perhaps the chef simply fell in love with the colors and forgot to taste it. A blush pink 1987 Mondavi White Zinfandel served as an ironic compliment. It, too, was notable only for its color.

Next came a salmon filet marinated with dill and grilled over California wood, the creation of chef Hiroshi Noguchi of the Stouffer Hotel in Orlando, Fla. Everyone at the table thought the salmon was too dry, and I found it quite salty. We all agreed that the garnish was interesting, a hollowed-out cucumber filled with mildly pickled vegetables. And I felt that the accompanying wine, a 1985 Rutherford Hill “Jaeger Vineyard” Chardonnay, was surprisingly good in its class. Still, it was a disappointing course.

The entremets, a fennel and aquavit sorbet, was created by Steve Geving, executive chef at First Interstate Bank. It may have been a good idea, but the taste of the aquavit hardly came through, and there was a curious, crunchy topping that nobody could identify or appreciate. I am sure everyone did appreciate the 15-minute intermission that followed.

Then things picked up a bit. Chef Shuichi Konno of the Irvine Hilton payed homage to classical French cuisine with a fine loin of veal, stuffed with wild mushrooms, foie gras, and truffle sauce. After the previous courses, everyone seemed delighted to gobble this up with gusto and wash it down with a 1984 Martini Pinot Noir. No one at my table was enamored of the garnish, though, a deep-fried potato dish shaped like a pear. “Why is this shaped like a pear?” wondered Richard.

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Werner Glur, of the Westin Bonaventure, created the salad, and I wish he hadn’t. His dish, baby greens and cheese Napoleon, just didn’t work. The salad dressing had far too much vinegar, and the Napoleon was filled with a strong blue-type cheese, overpowering the greens. Dee Wambaugh’s face said it all.

Everyone opened the little chocolate box and passed around the homemade chocolates inside. Topping the proceedings off were petits fours and coffee. The dinner supported a good cause, so no one was overly disappointed. But executive chef Jean-Marc Weber of Le Meridien did ask me to point out that he was in the dining room, not in the kitchen, for this event, and many people I spoke with were politely discreet with their opinions.

As artists, the guests gave all the chefs gold medals. Let’s leave it at that.


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