The Crowd: Fun was had while dealing with serious subject

The stunning blond chef Jamie Gwen stepped up to the microphone to address the several hundred guests who had gathered at the Fairmont Newport Beach for the 10th anniversary of the American Liver Foundation's Flavors of Orange County culinary gala.

Gwen, attired in a chic summer white fit and flair cocktail dress accented with dramatically pointed-toe shimmering gold pumps, wowed the crowd with her exquisite gold jewelry creations from the Paloma Picasso collection at Tiffany & Co. The elegant emcee of the evening cut away from the seriousness of the cause with her opening remarks. "I am reminded of what Miss Piggy says about food," said Gwen. "Never eat more than you can lift."

And let me tell you, no one in the Liver Foundation audience could possibly have lifted the amount of incredibly creative food that was about to be presented. It was arguably the most lavish and astonishingly gourmet presentation for a charity event on the Orange Coast.

The setting at the Fairmont, an al fresco walled garden with handsome stone fountains, lush tropical plantings and strands of white lights overhead, added to the spectacular drama of the culinary presentations that were to come.

The dining production is complex. Guest chefs from outstanding Southern California bistros are invited to create a spectacular meal for a table of patrons attending the Liver Foundation benefit.

What this means is that no two settings are alike, and different meals are served at each table. The participating chefs bring in everything. And that means everything, including the tables, chairs, décor, adornments, flatware, crystal, linens and candles of choice, as well as the cooking accoutrements needed to prepare the meal right in front of the table of patrons being served.

The list of culinary participants is impressive. Led by host chef of the evening Brian Doherty of the Fairmont Newport Beach, the lineup included Casey Overton of the Montage Laguna Beach, Tim Cast of Seasons 52, Seakyeong Kim of Charlie Palmer, Chicken Wang of Chapter One, Alfred Prasad of Tamarind of London, Franco Barone of ll Barone, Justin Miller of Pizzeria Ortica, Mark Fitkowski of Paul Martin's, Edgar Agbayani of Roy's, Cody Storts of Hopscotch, and Michael Vaughn of La Quinta Resort.

Gwen introduced the culinary royalty, delivering a mini-biography with each introduction and personalizing the pitch with descriptions of the unique creative recipes that have put each of these chefs on the food map. The detail was so enticing that the crowd was silent through the entire program, hanging on every word. They say that talented chefs today are culinary rock stars, and that was certainly the case on this night.

Here is a truncated rundown of the experience at table No. 2, orchestrated in the hands of Vaughn, who had come to the Fairmont from the La Quinta Resort in the desert with his entire entourage. Vaughn and team created and built an elevated natural wood picnic table in the shape of a half-hexagon, which seated 12 guests on one side of the structure, all facing the culinary crew creating the dinner on the other.

The ambience was "rustic California chic," featuring hammered silver utensils, hand-blown crystal glassware, miniature miner's lanterns aglow with candles and cream-colored raw linens. Seven unbelievable courses would be served to the 12 seated patrons, who included the lovely Lana Sills and Lee Healy, sparkling in the latest diamonds from the Tiffany & Co. Atlas collection to complement her sophisticated black lace summer cocktail frock.

Also at the farmhouse table were members of restaurant royalty. The president of Fleming's Prime Steakhouse, Skip Fox, and his wife, Peggy, joined another Fleming's executive, Kevin Whattoff, and his wife, Leiala. To share only a hint of what was to come, an appetizer created from an English muffin, French toast accented with bee pollen, a rich charred globe tomato soup served with handmade butter-drenched goldfish, lobster legs encrusted with a popcorn finish, prime rib created in a smoker infused with all of the rich flavors from special wood chips, and a nightcap of liquid nitrogen marshmallow-flavored ice-cream impressed the crowd. Specialty cocktails and select wine pairings came with each course.

An auction led by Larry Dick bisected the dining experience, offering extraordinary culinary opportunities to the highest bidder and bringing in much-needed funds to the Liver Foundation. The gastronomic indulgence was punctuated at the end of the program by a very personal address from a young man named Nick Smoke, who is suffering from Budd-Chiari syndrome and battling liver disease with strength and conviction.

Smoke, an actor, was emotional at the microphone as he shared his struggle. His voice was cracking and breaking as he told the crowd about his treatment and current condition. Most importantly, his personal appearance emphasized the reality that liver disease is not just an ailment for the old or seriously infirm; it can strike anyone at any time, even a healthy 30-something man like Smoke.

The evening on the Orange Coast paid tribute to a major donor, attorney Daniel Callahan, and his family. Also on the program was a personal address from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. Major sponsors of the night included Salix Pharmaceuticals, Merck, Wells Fargo and Loma Linda University Medical Center, to name only a few.

A special nod of support goes to Taly Fantini, executive director of the American Liver Foundation, Greater Los Angeles Division, and Gary Dudley, chairman of its board of directors.

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

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