The Crowd: An evening of French tradition for men

Ever dreamed of time-traveling back to another age to experience life under vastly different circumstances? That opportunity presented itself this week to 36 men in Newport Beach.

Hotelier Henry Schielein, president of the Balboa Bay Club & Resort and founder of the Les Amis d'Escoffier Society of Southern California, invited a select contingent of men to dinner under the banner of "Le Diner d'Automne."

It was prepared and served in the classic, and very 19th century, French tradition of Auguste Escoffier, "the chef of kings and the king of chefs." The Escoffier Society is a worldwide organization with chapters in many nations.

Born in France in 1846, Escoffier began his culinary career at the age of 12, working as an apprentice in his uncle's restaurant in Nice. He would go on to revolutionize French cuisine, and, in so doing so, modernize and elevate standards in kitchens worldwide.

Escoffier's philosophy was to prepare foods while preserving their utmost nutritional value and creating a "refined simplicity" of cooking and presentation. His standards internationally remain a high watermark today for serious chefs.

That said, the world of 19th century Europe vanished long ago. Formal dining at tables ladened with gleaming silver, fine bone china and linens of French and Belgian lace are but a distant memory preserved for modern generations mostly via period films.

Beyond the setting, the labor and the cost of food prohibits replication of the true Escoffier experience for all but a very fortunate few. In Newport Beach, Schielein's autumn dinner welcomed those fortunate few, dressed in black-tie sans their wives, girlfriends or female gastronomes for an 11-course dining experience. It could have been an evening at The Ritz in Paris at the height of the Belle Époque.

Guests —including Bob Robins, John Wortmann, James Pierog, Daniel Thomas, Tom Wilson, Peter Buffa, William Mathews, Richard Beine, Lowell Way, Troy Roe and Max Rogers — entered a candle-lit reception area in "The Grill" dining room, greeted by white-tie attired waiters pouring Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut.

Sommelier Jeffrey Converse politely corrected one gent who referred to the champagne, pronouncing Jouët as Joué, explaining that the "t" is enunciated because it is the partnership of French Perrier with the Dutch firm of Jouët, dating back a century.

Yet the Escoffier experience is not about "snob appeal" over fine food and wine. Rather, it is about learning, experimenting and coming together to taste from the knowledge of evolution throughout centuries of creation in the kitchen. If there is a bit of snobbery about it all, some point to the exclusion of the ladies.

"This is not discriminatory; it is not sexist," said one gent in the cocktail crowd, adding, "It is simply a male fraternity. After, all the women don't want us at every function they have, either!"

In an age of political correctness, the rules of Escoffier's table seem old world and genteel. Segregation of the sexes aside, the society requires and enforces some extremely civilized rules, manners and customs completely out of step (thankfully) with our cell phone-empowered, technologically-controlled lives.

First, "persons under the influence of liquor will not be permitted at the table." Smoking is "absolutely forbidden" until after dessert is served.

At Schielein's dinner, cigars were offered with coffee and cognac after dessert on The Grill's bayfront terrace By the way, the dessert was a "Poire Belle Hélène," the crown jewel of the dinner service and the personal creation of Escoffier.

There are also strict standards for dinner conversation.

Guests, under threat of expulsion, may not discuss "personal affairs," may not use the dining table as a tool for business connections and must refrain from discussing politics, religion or financial status.

The motto of the society is "live and let live," and its purpose is rooted in fostering friendship and preserving the age-old traditions of the table. It is no surprise that many of the dedicated Escoffier members belong to the fraternity of the culinary and hospitality industries.

Schielein welcomed a contingent of celebrities from that world in California. Among the honored guests were Johnny So, general manager of the St. Regis Monarch Beach hotel; Tom Voss, president of the elegant Grand Del Mar Hotel in San Diego; Pelican Hill Resort's Executive Chef Jean-Pierre Dubray; and from the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco's Baghdad by the Bay, Executive Chef Bruno Massuger.

Also stepping back in time for Schielein's elegant repast were Joe Gatto, general manager of The Pacific Club, Newport Beach; Hotel Laguna's Heinz Hofmann; and the dapper Bert Cutino, down from Monterey where he runs the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa and the popular bistro known as the Sardine Factory. Francis Perrott of the tony Fairbanks Ranch Country Club in Rancho Santa Fe was also front and center. Perrott will host the Spring 2012 Escoffier dinner at his club.

As dinner was served in the main dining room, Dieter Hissin, Schielein's director of food and beverage, welcomed the men at a linen-covered banquet table seating all 36 guests.

Silver candelabras sporting foot-tall white tapers glowed brightly, spaced between low arrangements of autumn roses and muted hydrangeas placed on mirror rounds reflecting the candles glow. Formal silver utensils polished to perfection framed white porcelain china and a line of appropriate crystal stemware, which was at the ready for the wine service to come with each course of the meal.

The BBC's Executive Chef de Cuisine Josef Lagader and his staff labored for three, 16-hour days prior to the dinner service in preparation, not to mention weeks of previous menu discussion, wine pairing and selection.

The dining experience was preceded by the induction of new Escoffier members invited to join the Southern California fraternity, which, Schielein shared, only admits 50 members at a given time, of which at least half must be culinary professionals. The 2011 inductees introduced included artist Michael Bryan, jeweler Mardo Ayvazyan, attorney Ira Falk, Johnny So, Tom Voss and Bert Cutino.

It was then time for dinner. In perfectly rehearsed and choreographed unison, George Valenzuela's dining staff presented a first-course caviar egg accompanied by a shot of Belvedere vodka. Converse explained that it was the purest of the original Polish vodkas. The caviar-encrusted egg served in shell was followed by consommé de boeuf, then an entrée of Dover sole, a portion of veal "vol au vent," and a palette cleanser of sorbet au cassis.

The dining experience continued with a service of classic Tournedo "Rossini," then a Belgian endive salad, a selection of rare cheese and fruit, and, finally, the "Poire Belle Hélène." The society's ultimate purpose is to preserve and perpetuate the classic culinary art of French cuisine.

Reveling in the presentation were Bryan Stirrat, Mitchell Sussman, David Martin, David Weinberg, John Cook, Noel Hamilton, Mark Montgomery, Tim Sayler, Marty Rakowitz, Aaron Castaneda, Charlie Foss and Lynn Caswell.

As the midnight hour approached, it was time to leave 19th century France and return to 21st century California. Indeed, many of the guests would have preferred to remain behind.

THE CROWD runs Thursdays and Saturdays. B.W. Cook is editor of the Bay Window, the official publication of the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach.

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