By: Sheen Fischer
There is no greater way to forge friendships replete with trust, common experience, shared sacrifice and spilled blood, sweat and tears than to work together with others toward a goal that cannot be achieved in any other manner than through collaboration. When that collaboration includes great food, copious laughter, unfettered truth, shared passion and a noble cause, it takes on an exquisite purity, transcending all conceit and vanity, even if only for a few hours.
Such is the case with Collaboration Kitchen, conceived of by Tommy Gomes of Catalina Offshore, hosted in Catalina’s facility and sponsored by Specialty Produce and Camp Chef. CK, so shortened because, let’s face it, the whole name takes up more room in the mouth than a giant Monchong filet, is an underground, educational cooking event that is held to raise money for local charitable causes. Usually there are one or two well-known local chefs or cooking personalities that do the main presentation and an army of volunteers, many of them outstanding chefs in their own right who help to execute the evening.
Entry into the event can only be gained by monitoring social media sites such as Facebook and then clicking as rapidly as humanly possible when the announcement is made before tickets sell out. You must also make it past the ever alert gate keepers like Catalina Offshore’s PR and Social Media Director, Rebecca Gardon. Don’t let her angelic smile fool you, she can rip you to shreds with not a waver of the lips and you’ll still run to friend her on Facebook. The event is BYOB and everyone brought B. They also brought an appetite, an attitude of open expectation and support for the cause.
The very interesting thing about CK is that it appears to be so simple and humble on the surface. There are folding plastic chairs set up for the attendees in a working seafood warehouse and camp stoves for cooking surfaces.
Yet, while it is not a Broadway or Hollywood production, there is a sophistication to the event that can only have been honed through years of trial, error and necessity. Here Ermias works the sound station, nothing more than a folding table with a table cloth and a simple soundboard. Yet, you know he’s doing a beautiful job because you miss nary a syllable spoken by the mic’ed up stars of the evening.
If I had my way, I could have stayed in the back of the house all night watching the synchronized army of volunteers work in perfect unison and coordination to push food out for the hundred or so guests in attendance. Here, they are prepping the spot prawns for the second dish of the night – this is before guests started arriving, which means they were working with about an hour lead time.
During a pre-event tongue wagging session with Sam Zien, event founder Tommy Gomes and CK board member and Specialty Produce representative Kelly Orange, these three went from serious, in-depth discussion to all smiles in .001 seconds.
Sam the Cooking Guy was first on stage at the evening’s festivities. He’s an everyday, local San Diego guy with a cooking show that he films in his home, complete with kids, dogs and 14 Emmys. His banter and style of cooking are easy on the ears, the ego and the budget. He believes in using regular words to teach regular people to cook easy, great food.
His counterpart for the night, Chef Matt Gordon doesn’t have any Emmys, but he has some serious cooking chops and three restaurants – Urban Solace in North Park, Solace and the Moonlight Lounge in Encinitas and Sea and Smoke in Delmar. His philosophy in the kitchen is work hard and have a great time doing it. A little “fire in the pan” showmanship is always a recipe for a great time in my book!
The gathered guests seemed to enjoy the show…
Meanwhile, the back of the house was as star-studded as the front of the house. Here, Chef (aka General of the Kitchen) Marguerite Grifka of California Table briefs the volunteers and chefs as to the night’s events and does whatever the chef in charge is supposed to do.
I didn’t get too close, because by this time I had gotten a little taste of her bark, deservedly so, since, as a rookie at the event, I was standing in all the wrong places taking pictures while chefs and volunteers dodged around me. I moved in a hurry and walked on tiptoes with my head on a swivel the rest of the night.
Chef Maria Hesse is a personal chef and author of “The Intentionalist Cooks”, a collection of simple recipes that just happen to be vegan and gluten free.
She also keeps this guy in line…
Chef Billy “Butter” Joyce of Surfside Cuisine Chef Services spent pretty much the entire evening on the grill station. In his “spare” time (because the chef industry is famous for all of the spare time it provides) he surfs, travels and teaches kid’s cooking classes.
There is something about sweating, enduring and working shoulder to shoulder with your peers that seems to make everything about life so much better. This is where the lifelong relationships are built – where our friendships are forged in fire of “do” or “be done to”. Jonathan Liu is no chef, just a volunteer, a friend and a riding buddy to Tommy Gomes who has been at pretty much every CK event to date and seems to be everywhere while never being in the way – How did he do that?
Sam started us off with the first course of the evening, his Breakfast Matzo Brei with Lox & Caviar. Think of Jewish style Chilaquiles with a nice blend of flavors all wrapped up in a slightly crunchy, juice absorbing nest of goodness.
Matt’s second course of Spot Prawn with Mole (pronounced MOH-lay) and Burnt Tortilla Pesto was wonderfully executed. Spot prawns have a very light, delicate flavor and are most commonly served raw, as Amaebi, or “sweet shrimp” in the sushi world. To wrap it in what is potentially a heavy, glommy concoction as mole and accompany it with anything “burnt” without completely losing the prawn in the dish requires a level of skill that is not easily achieved. Consider it achieved.
Not that it was a competition or anything, but Sam was in it to win it. Here he shows that Matt’s not the only guy that can play with fire. As he used his Searzall to put a nice light char on the shrimp, a lady in the crowd who I’m pretty sure was holding her wine bottle by the neck shouted, “Hey Sam, you’re supposed to be the home cooking guy. Who the heck owns one of those things?” Two-thirds of the hands in the crowd went up, as did the bottom of the wine bottle the questioner was holding. The shrimp isn’t the only thing that got lit up…
Sam’s Perfect Summer Lunch Yellow Pepper Gazpacho with Grilled Shrimp was…perfect. The gazpacho had a slight spicy kick, just enough to make you want more and the shrimp, well, they were, of course, seared perfectly.
Three courses in there was an intermission/restroom break/let my butt regain its shape because that plastic is hard. In truth, it wasn’t so much an intermission as it was an opportunity for Tommy and Ken “Man with a Pan” Gardon to impress the crowd with some serious knife skills. Here, they are breaking down some local yellowtail that eventually was served sashimi style to the guests.
He caught the red-eye…Get it?
Sara Polczynski, Consulting Executive Chef of the Blind Burro and Associate Professor of Culinary Arts at San Diego Community College’s Continuing Education Program, and daughter Ava welcomed the brief respite as well. Wait, the kitchen was still working while the crowd went on break. What the…? Slackers 😉
Fellow blogger Diana of thedailychow.com and sidekick/lens changer-outer Phuc were great to work with. I picked up tons of photography tricks from her as well as a hilarious story of how she once ate the centerpiece of a dish (which apparently looked like a garnish) and then published the photo unknowingly. Oopsie.
Well, back to the grindstone. Are you starting to feel like this event lasted awhile? It wasn’t the length of time that was impressive – it was the fact that the time passed so quickly. Tommy, Sam and Matt were fun, loquacious and quick witted, sharing their depth of knowledge and deep love for food with the crowd.
Here, Matt is smoking a pan of Monchong filets for his next dish.
This Smoked Monchong with Uni-Pea Puree & Meyer Lemon Confit was a fish dish first, but then, after a bite of two, became a fish dish with smoothness, creaminess and herbaciousness. It had a great balance, without being overly acidic, fruity, fishy or herby. Not that I think you can have too many herbs on a fish. It was one of those dishes that makes you feel as though you’ve been eating it all your life – enough recognizable ingredients to feel comfortable with enough unique ingredients to keep you interested.
Sam’s Simple Dinner Sweet and Spicy Chili Opah perfectly brought home his point of “opposites attract” when it comes to food. The bitterness of the shishito peppers and the sweetness of the apricot jam counterpointed the heat of the sambal with aplomb.
Matt was last on stage, so he got last honors for doing something cool for the crowd. I’m not sure if that is olive oil or Tequila in his other hand, could have been either honestly, but I’m going to call olive oil since it’s still half full. This was an evening of enjoying and imbibing, for guests and “staff” alike.
And, then he lightly twirled the flipped contents of the pan onto a plate as a prelude to the Fermented Chili Rubbed Hiramasa (yellowtail) with Korean Noodle. This is a dish that will have you cleaning your plate with your fingers and tongue. But, fingers first…keeping it classy, San Diego!
Each dish of the evening was accompanied by an Alesmith product provided by owner Peter Zien. Normally a BYOB event, there was plenty of B to start off with, but the added brews provided by Peter were a special treat and only served to enhance both the culinary and the social experience.
The proceeds from the event went to the Chef Celebration Foundation of San Diego, a nonprofit organization that strives to enhance the knowledge and potential of promising young chefs and lay a foundation of excellence for San Diego’s culinary future.
And this is how birthdays are celebrated in the food world!
At the end of the evening, there was a feeling of wistfulness. The skill, dedication and love put into each plate by the volunteers was received in reciprocal fashion of appreciation, awe and satisfaction by the guests. There was a sense of “wow, it’s over, what now?” that pervaded the venue when the festivities concluded. The culture shock of going from 60 miles an hour on a party bus to walking alone down a dark alley. Time to go sit in front of the computer and wait until the next CK is announced…
Cheers, my friends!