The Oscar menu: Puck plans a small-plates party for the Governors Ball
After the Oscars, dessert will be served in 3-D at the Governors Ball this year. Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard has created an Austrian chocolate cake that resembles a staircase leading to a giant edible Oscar statuette that is iced in a way that makes it pop into relief when viewed through the 3-D glasses presented with the dessert.
“It’s the first time we’re going to eat in 3-D,” says the ball’s master chef, Wolfgang Puck, over coffee before lunch service at Spago in Beverly Hills. “Why not? We love movies in 3-D these days.”
The dessert is a far cry from the vanilla and chocolate ice cream that was served in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel for the first Oscar ceremony in 1929. Eighty-three years later, the Oscar night meal has evolved into a spectacle as outsized as the telecast itself. However, outsized doesn’t mean buttoned up, so in keeping with the times, Sunday’s meal at the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland is kicking off its shiny shoes — forsaking a formal sit-down dinner in favor of a party-style affair featuring passed small plates and lounge-style seating.
Until 1944, the ceremony was held during a dinner banquet — one that was rarely commented on in news accounts of the evening. But that year the banquet vanished as the presentations turned into a stage show. Food finally returned in an official capacity when the first Governors Ball dinner was held in 1958, the year"The Bridge on the River Kwai"won best picture.
For years, the ball was staged off-site at the Beverly Hilton and a hotel caterer saw to the menu, which was often mocked for its pretensions. In 1982, for example, 1,380 guests, including Warren Beatty (who had just won as director for “Reds”) and Diane Keaton, noshed on something called Supreme de Volaille en Croute Lucullus.
Over the years, the ceremony bounced from location to location. When the decision was made to hold the dinner at the same place as the ceremony at the Shrine Auditorium in 1988, a Santa Monica-based firm called Ambrosia Caterers took over. In the early 1990s, when the dinner and ceremony moved to the Music Center, Pavilion Catering, whose parent company owned Coco’s, Carrows and Chi Chi’s, held an exclusive contract.
Before Puck assumed the cooking duties for the Governors Ball in 1995, one of the most popular dinner parties on Oscar night was the one hosted by agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar and his wife, Mary, a triple-A-list gathering at Spago, which was held annually for nearly three decades. That and editor Graydon Carter’s annual Vanity Fair party, which for nearly 20 years has been one of the toughest invites in town — a place where Justin Bieber and Salman Rushdie might be seen in the same room.
The Vanity Fair soiree is famous for the In-N-Out burgers that are passed around on trays with the rest of the canapes. But Carter recently wrote in an email that his “is not a party where you remember the food, this is a party where you remember who you talked to and who you embarrassed yourself in front of.”
Besides, Carter says most of his guests prefer a liquid diet by the time they get to his party.
“I think the guests want some Champagne (last year we went through 330 bottles), maybe a little water and perhaps a cigarette when they’re socializing at the party,” writes Carter.
Since it was at Spago, Lazar’s party was known for its food, including Puck’s Jewish pizza with smoked salmon and créme fraiche.
Lazar died in December 1993, and in 1994 Puck kept Spago dark out of respect for his late friend, but by 1995 the academy had wooed Puck to cater the Governors Ball — in large part because it hoped his presence would inject life into an obligatory post-awards party that had turned into what The Times referred to in 1993 as “the 800-pound gorilla of Academy Awards celebrations.”
Such was the status of Puck’s culinary stardom that year that he shuttled between the ball at the Shrine and his own party at Spago in a helicopter.
At the time, Puck was the wunderkind of gourmet pizza — a daring chef who wooed new Hollywood by taking the “F” in fine dining and turning it into fun dining. It’s a trick that he’s happy to return to with this year’s Governors Ball, which for the second time in the ball’s 54-year history will not be a formal seated affair.
In 2007, it was presented as an open-format supper party with food stations serving up full-sized entrees at the behest of Sid Ganis, former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But the size of the plates made eating on the go difficult, and some people complained, so the next year a formal seating chart was once again instituted. And the seating chart, according to Puck, has been the most contested aspect of the ball since he’s been cooking for it.
For the 84th Academy Awards, at the prodding of the academy’s new chief executive, Dawn Hudson, that chart has been chucked in favor of a relaxed, restaurant-style format in which the stars can arrive and be guided by a maitre d’ to sit with whom they’d like.
In addition, there will be no main course, only 10 small plates, cold appetizer and sushi platters, and plenty of tray-passed bites. These include Chinois lamb with cilantro-mint vinaigrette; crab and lobster Louie with horseradish panna cotta and marinated tomatoes; Shanghai lobster with coconut curry, jasmine rice and pickled ginger; and gold-wrapped baked potatoes with caviar and crème fraîche.
“Dawn runs the show now, and she wants to have a party — she doesn’t want to have a fancy sit-down dinner, which is what I always told them they should do,” says Puck. “But they never knew how to do the seating — I fought with them so many times — they were so rigid with the seating. This year, we’re going to have low tables, like in a lounge, and we’re going to serve small plates — things you can eat with a fork or just with your hands.”
Sound familiar? If you’ve been dining out in L.A. — or any other major metropolitan area — over the last four years, chances are you’ve been nibbling on plenty of small, shared plates. Puck and Yard say the trend has developed to the point of saturation as diners have become more sophisticated about food in general and would rather have, as Yard puts it, “one dark, deep, decadent bite” of a complex dessert than 10 bites of milk chocolate.
However, Cheryl Cecchetto, who is producing the ball for the 23rd consecutive year, says the thinking at the Governors Ball has always reflected larger societal trends.
“Think of the world. Everything is shorter, faster — is actually in small bites,” says Cecchetto, decked out in a sparkly silver dress at the media preview for the ball. “The world is living in small bites. The world wants to keep moving.”
That’s certainly true of Hollywood’s elite, who over the years, Cecchetto and Puck have noticed, would sit in their assigned seats for only a short period of time before hopping up to socialize all over the room, a habit that made serving a hot dinner problematic.
That wasn’t always the case, though. Smartphones, Twitter and tablets may have made us restless lately, but such behavior would never have flown during Lazar’s reign. As one Times article put it in 1994, the year after his death, “Lazar didn’t suffer table hoppers gladly. If you were seated for dinner, you sat.”
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