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Fund-Raiser Rates 5 Michelin Stars

It may be that last Saturday’s Fete X Five (“Feast Times Five”) gala for the March of Dimes will be remembered as the first local fund-raiser to touch off an international furor. If so, blame it on event chairwoman Luba Johnston, who just put her lips together and whistled, and lured five of the world’s most talented chefs away from their own restaurants and into the kitchens at the Sheraton Harbor Island Hotel.

The Champagne Ballroom was, for that one night, not only San Diego’s top restaurant but one of the best in the world, featuring the culinary efforts of a team that included Paris restaurateur/chef Michel Pasquet; Michel Richard of Citrus in Los Angeles, and the New York trio of Daniel Boulud of Le Cirque, Michel Fitoussi of Regine’s and Jean Jacques Rachou of La Cote Basque.

Any one of them would have been a strong draw; the five together guaranteed that the party sold out its 550 seats by mid-December. Proceeds are expected to handily exceed the $130,000 raised by the 1987 event.

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Johnston, who has directed a number of major galas and reprised her role as Fete X Five chair, said that putting together the evening was worthwhile, if not exactly a slice of angel’s food.

Tough Act to Follow

“Sometimes it’s tough to follow your own act,” she said. “It was a challenge for me. But I’m so happy I did it twice, because the evening is fantastic!”

It was Johnston’s Gallic Gang of Five who made the gala fantastic, and they were enticed away from the home fires by noted New York Times food writer and former master chef Pierre Franey, who said it was the first time the group had worked together.

“They’re all friends of mine, and they all agreed to come the moment I asked them,” Franey said. “It’s the best group I could have assembled--what they’re doing is not easy, but they care. They do care.”

The guests cared, too, especially for the quintet of unusual appetizers that circulated during the cocktail hour. Those in search of hors d’oeuvres perfected a kind of dive ‘n’ dip routine that was a cross between the Icky Woods Shuffle and the Hustle. If one wanted to grab one of Richard’s quail egg-caviar canapes or a triangle of Rachou’s country pate, it was necessary to dart athletically through the crowds that thronged the reception-hour buffets. The scene was peaceful only in the vicinity of Fitoussi’s “Italian cigars,” roulades of prosciutto, avocado and mozzarella that many guests described as dull.

While the scene at the cocktail reception bordered on the frenetic, the atmosphere in the kitchen was almost preternaturally calm. The chefs, their sous chefs (each had brought at least one assistant) and the hotel staff did their best to give the impression that the evening was nothing more than business as usual, although none except the hotel’s banquet chefs have the habit of preparing 550 dinners at once.

Sheraton Executive Chef Bob Brody, who coordinated the effort, said he wasn’t even faintly intimidated by the presence of so much talent in his kitchen, although his tone seemed to indicate a different point of view.

“It’s great, it’s just excellent,” Brody said of the evening’s fare. “There’s a depth of flavor that doesn’t exist with the nouvelle cuisine stuff. You’re not dealing with kids here.”

That perception was shared by members of the event committee who were detailed to greet the chefs at the airport. Gala co-chair Dixie Unruh was amazed by Boulud’s baggage, which included a crate filled with the frozen veal stock he had confected in his New York kitchen. “He even brought his own bacon, and we have bacon here, for goodness’ sake,” she said. “These chefs are so particular about everything !”

That particularity showed up during dinner, which began promisingly with Richard’s eggplant terrine, grew brilliant with Boulud’s roasted swordfish in Sherry vinegar sauce, survived Rachou’s old-fashioned stuffed veal loin and continued with Pasquet’s heady goat cheese salad. The finish was devasting to anyone who thought he already had seen the best that pastry chefs have to offer; it consisted of sugar “apples,” each blown like glass from a green-tinted sugar cube and filled with a lime mousse. It made believers out of those who previously had scoffed at the fussiness of French cuisine.

Since the evening revolved around food, one focus was the auction of dinners to be prepared at some of the city’s grander homes. Restaurateurs George Munger and Bertrand Hug wielded the gavel under which meals were sold at, among others, Kathy and George Pardee’s (the builder himself will serve as chef) and Virginia and Jack Monday’s, where Jorg Dosseger will wield the saute pans. In all, the auction added about $11,000 to the gala’s net proceeds.

Dr. Jonas Salk, whose Salk Institute was built with March of Dimes funds, headed up the guest list with his wife, artist Francoise Gilot. Among others were Cecil Green, San Diego Padres acting president and March of Dimes chapter chairman Dick Freeman; Tawfiq and Richel Khoury; vintners John and Martha Culbertson; Charles and Sue Edwards; Audrey Geisel; Charles and Rene Taubman; George and Martha Gafford; Donald and Lois Roon; Frank and Joanne Warren; Sheri and Ben Kelts; Bill and Jeanne Larson; Jacque Powell; Neal and Linda Hooberman, and Bill and Alma Spicer.


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