15 Years After

Two years ago, Michael McCarty threw a reunion party to celebrate the star chefs who had started their careers at Michael's, McCarty's Santa Monica restaurant. Last year, he honored the young chefs who represent the future of restaurants in Southern California.

A week ago Sunday, McCarty again looked back, this time to the 350-seat dinner he helped organize 15 years ago to mark the beginning of the American Institute of Wine and Food. It was the first time celebrity chefs--at the time a new, fascinating breed of famous faces--from all over the U.S. had come together to cook a sit-down dinner for so many people. Pre-event reports predicted clashes of ego in the kitchen and clashes of flavors among the courses--how would Paul Prudhomme's Cajun cuisine match with Mark Miller's Southwestern flavors or Larry Forgione's American classics?

Instead, the dinner turned out to be a watershed event at which chef alliances were formed and the public got notice that there was truly a new American cuisine.

"It was the best time I ever had in a kitchen," said Jonathan Waxman at the Michael's party, handing out a plate of grilled soft-shell crab.

Across the patio, Campanile's Mark Peel, serving mussels with bits of Spanish sausage, remembered the dinner as the night Paul Prudhomme taught him to blacken redfish. "We had to do it on the balcony of the hotel's kitchen," Peel said, "because the ventilation system couldn't handle the smoke from 350 pieces of blackened fish."

"It was one of the first really big events I'd ever been involved with," said Alice Waters, who was smoothing fresh fava bean puree on slices of charcoal-grilled bread. "At first, I didn't want anybody else to touch my food, but everybody helped everybody else. Of course, Paul Prudhomme was the most savvy of any of us. He'd cooked for huge crowds before."

Just across from Waters, Prudhomme was tending a panful of crawfish and pasta in chili-cream sauce. On the next burner was a pan of the dish he calls Butter Beans That Make You Crazy, smoky with terrific andouille. In ordinary circumstances, Prudhomme wouldn't have shown up--his appearances are set a year in advance and McCarty planned this party just two months ago. But Prudhomme has good memories of the San Francisco party.

"We started communicating after," he said. "We started comparing ideas about what regional American food is."

And as he noticed a party-goer glance at the display of his branded seasonings, he remarked on the central irony of new American cooking: Though commercialism may dilute the flavors of a regional cuisine, it may save the food of a culture. "People need to be willing to pay restaurant prices for food that used to be made in home kitchens," he said. "It's the only way to keep regional food alive."

Toward the end of the party, when the chefs--among them Jeremiah Tower, Forgione, Bradley Ogden and Wolfgang Puck with his Spago chef Lee Hefter--came together for applause and a group photo, winemaker Robert Mondavi, who helped start the American Institute of Wine and Food but has shifted his allegiances to the yet-to-be-built American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, gave the party gravitas by telling the chefs, "I don't know if you realize it, but the work you've been doing in your kitchens has raised the cultural image of our country worldwide. We used to look to Europe for our inspiration and now they're looking to us. This is just the beginning."

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