The $500 Question: What to Serve?

They wanted delicious food that wouldn't bounce, fly or string guests along.

Seven women gathered last week at the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach to sample mouthwatering fare prepared by banquet chef Karen Hoffmann and crew.

The challenge: decide on a menu that would satisfy the tastes of the 2,000 people expected to attend the Orange County Performing Art Center's 10th anniversary gala Sept. 8.

"Rubber chicken is out," joked gala cuisine chairwoman Shari Esayian of Newport Beach. "And so is mystery food--we don't want guests having to look at the menu to know what they're eating."

Not at these prices. When the cost is $500 per person--which includes a champagne reception and gala concert in Segerstrom Hall--guests expect the finest food, taste and presentation.

The Four Seasons Hotel beat out other contenders for the arts catering coup of the year with a low bid of $70 per dinner (the cost to the center). Besides Hoffmann, the hotel will feature chefs from Beverly Hills (the Regent Beverly Wilshire), Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. The dinner will be served outside of the center in its carriage courtyard area.

Hoffmann, who began her career at a hot dog stand in Chicago, is excited about cooking for the arts crowd. "This is a high-level event," she said. "We want to give them something that makes them say, 'Wow!' "

Great food arrives at the table hot, stays on the plate when it is carved and contains manageable ingredients, agreed committee members.

Catherine Thyen, gala chairwoman, dreads being served "frozen food," she said. "I've had that experience too many times."

There's nothing worse than sitting, all gussied up, at a gala and having a piece of chicken fly into your lap after you've cut into it, observed Arden Flamson, a member of the cuisine committee.

Another formal dinner no-no, offered Mary Jean Simpkins, "are those spidery pieces of lettuce that hang out of your mouth."

Billur Wallerich dislikes food that clings to your teeth. (We've all shuddered at "spinach smiles.") Her survival tip: "Use the blade of your knife as a mirror to check out your reflection" during the meal.

As waiters circled the flower-bedecked table, pouring fine wines and delivering food selections in the private salon, the women--who also included Nora Johnson and Carol Wilken--sampled contenders for the first course.

Would it be the crab and sea bass cakes in a pool of red-pepper sauce? Or the duck ravioli in a bed of lentils?

"Love the ravioli, but I'm worried about the curry flavoring," said Esayian, a veteran party-giver. "I vote for the crab cakes. I like the comfort level."

Comfort level? "Comfort level of taste. It's not spicy."

Next up: the main course. The swordfish was light and delicious, but fish doesn't have the "perceived value" of a veal or beef dish, noted one. "People want their money's worth," observed another.

The too-large veal chop "looks like a lumberjack's meal," Thyen said.

"I vote for the beef tenderloin!" said Flamson, raising her hand. It was unanimous.

And so beef tenderloin and prawns--served on a bed of ratatouille and caramelized onions--it will be.

Dessert, the women agreed, will come in two varieties: a bru^lee tart and a hazelnut timbale encased in chocolate. Servers will alternate the desserts at place settings, giving guests the chance to sample both.

"That will make for a fun, interactive experience," said Pamela George, director of catering for the Four Seasons.

Taking a break after the tasting, Hoffmann smiled when she talked about cooking for 2,000 people. "One thousand is the most I've ever cooked for," she said.

Then she laughed. "I hope the catering truck doesn't break down."

For gala tickets, call (714) 556-2122, Ext. 410.


Come to the cabaret: Making South Coast Repertory feel like a cozy, romantic cafe, cabaret singer Andrea Marcovicci sang love songs to a 500-strong crowd Saturday night during the Costa Mesa theater's second annual Summer Spotlight event.

"My mother was a cabaret singer," explained Marcovicci, who regularly appears at the Algonquin in New York. "Her idea of a lullaby? 'Stormy Weather'! "

Beginning with a lilting rendition of "As Time Goes By," the graceful Marcovicci--dressed in a black silk gown overlaid with black velvet roses--gave guests what they had paid at least $100 each to hear: love songs from the theater.

Selections, sung on a stage illuminated by a single spotlight--and accompanied by pianist Glenn Mehrbach--included "Where or When," "My Romance" and "Some Enchanted Evening." Of the latter, Marcovicci deadpanned: "A hopelessly romantic song [with lyrics] so different from anything we've ever had in our life!"

Chairpersons of the event--which included a pre-performance buffet in the theater courtyard and dessert at Glabman's Furniture in Costa Mesa--were Gordon Wiles, Barbara Glabman and Jon Madison.

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