By: Sheen Fischer
Months before Hurricane Dolores graced us last weekend with record July rains, flash floods and monsoonal humidity, another storm was brewing that was destined to wreak havoc on all that we believed was possible in the food world. However, this storm was designed to be one of the great charitable, social and food events of the year and only coincidentally collided with the remnants of Miss Dolores. So it was that the Pink Lady of La Jolla, La Valencia, hosted her first annual “Haute Pink” charity event on a balmy, slightly still and sticky summer evening with $20k in proceeds headed toward the San Diego Ronald McDonald House for the purchase of new catering kitchen tools and the launch of a recycling program.
It would probably be expected that the list of attendees at a major charity function such as this would include a veritable Who’s Who of personalities in attendance…and it did. The kicker is that the celebrities in question (at least for the purposes of this article) were not the diners…
It’s hard to imagine, in any industry, profession or pursuit, how you would find find a better rounded collection of vision, management skills, social networking ability and leadership presence than that of Chef James Montejano. Even more extraordinary is the confluence of Chef James’ career and the beautiful Pink Lady at the right times in their lives – She, always at the geographic epicenter of La Jolla, but perhaps needing a slight rejuvenation and infusion of energy to remain at the hub of all things social. He, having taken positions of relevance in one of the great food cities of the world, San Francisco, some that included a cut in pay and status, in order to re-invigorate his passion and reinforce his skills for all things culinary, but ready to return home.
At the helm for a little over a year now and overseeing all things food, Chef James was the designer, architect and builder of the night’s event and is decidedly leading the charge to the top of the Relevance Hill, escorting his Lady with a light touch and a firm vision. If Lady La V may be seen as experiencing something akin to a 21st century renaissance, then Chef James can be considered, without doubt or quibbling, her Renaissance Man.
While pink is cool, wearing it is not necessarily a reason to drop a month’s luxury car payment on a dinner. However, when a creative mind like Chef James’ toggles on and sprouts the brilliant idea to dedicate the meal to his mentor and one of the top chefs in the nation prepared by not one, not two, not even three or four of his former charges, not only is that event likely to be sold out, but the pink attire becomes the badge of honor and entry pass to one of the great meals of all time.
Six Degrees of Michael Mina, an ode to the great chef, included a menu of seven courses, one by Chef Michael and the remainder prepared by six of Chef Michael’s former chefs (five of whom are local with ties to North County) who are all now well-known in their own right and revered for the culinary feats they have accomplished in their own establishments. It became an event made indescribably poignant by the loyalty and dedication displayed by the involved chefs and the heart felt expression of appreciation by Chef Mina that this first of its kind event was being celebrated in his honor. At the same time, the event created a buzz, fervor and anticipation in the food community that could only be surpassed by the final results of the impending meal.
If the fate of civilization as we know it hinged on having one meal prepared with the utmost forethought, care, precision and pride possible, this is pretty much the team I would want to have executing it. Think Seal Team Six, Marine Raiders or Indiana Jones – success is not a question at this level – it is a given. It is something that these chefs have trained for most of their lives with the same passion, intensity and heart that they put into each component that is included on each plate of food they serve.
The dream team of chefs assembled for the evening’s festivities are (left to right): Chef Michael Mina (Mina Restaurant Group, restaurants in 8 different U.S. cities and two Michelin Stars), Chef James Montejano (La Valencia), Chef Wade Hageman (Blue Ribbon Artisan Pizzeria and The Craftsman in Encinitas), Chef Jeffrey Strauss (Pamplemousse Grill, Solana Beach), Chef Carl Schroeder (Market Restaurant, Delmar), Chef Jason Halverson (Stones Throw, San Francisco) and Chef Tina Luu (The Chocolate Studio, San Diego).
Every great venture, from skyscraper to spaceship, succeeds or fails based on the preparation that goes into it. The end results may be prettied up for public consumption, but those are only the result of careful consideration, precision planning and hours, days and sleepless night’s worth of sweat equity that are invested long before the prettiness can be realized.
Behind the scenes were not only the assemblage of renowned chefs, but also a litany of sous chefs and executive chefs from other establishments, assistants and staff that worked in seamless harmony to make the nights festivities a synchronized ballet of impeccably executed and perfectly timed courses.
As I observed the event, front of the house and back of the house, from early prep through the 11:00 p.m. finish, I kept waiting for the storm to hit – Surely at an event where 88 people needed to be served at the same time, there would be some level of frenzy, pot banging, and sweaty, urgent calls to arms.
Remarkably, though, while the urgency of timing, plating and service were acknowledged, never was there a even a rushed pace in the kitchen. In fact, except for the few minutes it took to fire and garnish each course (each of which were timed to the second), there was more leaning around and catching up on old times here than at a union roadworkers convention. The entire service was like a perfectly timed and choreographed ballet executed with the physical agility of a professional sports team with nary a sweat broken or cross word spoken.
And even though this dinner was about the charity and the food, (Oh, yes, we’ll get to the food), there is no way to forget that, just as every component on the plate must work with the others in order for the perfect experience to be enjoyed, so must every component of the festivities themselves.
Yes, the food is the star – but it doesn’t walk itself to the table. Nor does it park the cars or provide the ambience, service and professionalism that all combine to enhance the experience for the diner. This dinner was, in every sense of the word, a production par excellence, with all parties from the valet staff to the servers performing their roles with grace and enthusiasm.
Appetizers of blood clams, salmon rolls and a couple of different uni concoctions were served up by Chef Davin Waite of the Wrench and the Rodent Seabasstropub in Oceanside. I happened to be circulating amongst the guests while they were being served (not to mention having a couple pushed my way while I was in the kitchen). The servers were having a hard time getting 10 feet past the kitchen door with these as they were being snatched off the serving platters as soon as they came into view. I discovered the correct order of eating these was nigiri first, then blood clam, then uni shooter (rest the empty shot glass on the empty clam shell), then salmon roll (prop the used chopsticks in the empty shot glass). Wash, rinse and repeat.
Chef Jeffrey Strauss’ first course of Oysters, Champagne & Caviar boasted a lobster custard and osetra caviar among the other ingredients. This was like an savory, embellished oyster milk shake, creamy and smooth with the texture in all the right places and plenty of silky, mild flavor to fill in around the edges for a complete palate filling experience while not destroying the taste buds for the courses to come.
The Mesquite Grilled “Hot Pot” Spot Prawns prepared by Chef Carl Schroeder were a misnomer. With the addition of the crispy Dungeness crab and Miso glazed seabass in a spiced Dashi broth, this was far more than a prawn dish – it was a mouthful of seafood heaven in each bite. There are times when seafood should be served straight up in order to enjoy the purest essence of its flavor. This was not one of them. All of the ingredients in the bowl were there for a reason and worked together to provide an ultimate, rich flavor experience.
Lobster Mascarpone Dumplings. I feel like I’m naming a serial killer, like John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald style. If this dish showed up in my theater box with a gun pointed at me, I would chase it to the grassy knoll, eat first and ask questions later. That doesn’t make a bit of sense, but with all the flavor from this dish rattling around in my head, it’s hard to think coherently.
I believe a straw poll amongst those in the kitchen ended up with this Hudson Valley Foie Gras dish by Chef Jason Halverson being considered the best of the best on this particular evening. Think what would happen if a stick of butter had a love child with foie gras to make the creamiest, smoothest concoction known to man. Oh, and let’s add in some savory cured meat as a base, crispy maitake mushrooms for texture, apple lovage and sake vinaigrette as a distraction. Good try, Chef. There was no getting away from the foie in this dish. In fact, this was so good, it makes me wonder if everyone else is just doing it wrong… Personally, I’m kicking myself that I didn’t eat at Chef’s restaurant when we were in the City a couple of weeks ago.
Chef Wade’s Dayboat Seared Scallops and Sweet Breads were, pardon the pun, Sweeeet! The creamy, melt in your mouth scallop was offset in all right places by the slight irony flavor of the sweetbreads and the rich aroma and light, woody taste of the summer truffles. Chanterelle mushrooms burst with stored juices to become the marrying element between the extreme textures from the sea and land while sweet white corn completed the textural and flavor experience with the right amount of snap, tooth and palate pleasing sweetness.
In my book, there are few greater pleasures in the world than enjoying a perfectly cooked and plated piece of red meat. Note that the redness of this American Kobe Manhattan NY Filet presented by Chef James does not denote raw – it is indicative of a roast that was cooked at the exact right temperature for the correct amount of time then allowed to rest before slicing so as to retain its natural juice, flavor and tenderness. Create the perfect bite with a bit of the Morels, Japanese sweet potato au poivre, cippolini onion and summer veggies, lightly dip them into the wagyu jus vinaigrette and not only will you enjoy the savory classic flavor of perfection, but you’ll also reminisce about the way things were done in the days of yore when life moved at a slower pace. This could have been called the “Ohhhh” steak…
While watching the preparation and plating of this dessert by Chef Tina Luu, I played a little counting game. I came up with about 14 different components. I’m sure I missed some. Every component on the plate from the balsamic caviar to the Ginger’d frangipane was created by Chef Tina and her staff with molecular black magic and loving care to provide a tantalizing, refreshing and alternating sweet and semi sweet ending to an event that was more of an extravaganza than a meal.
At the bell tolled, the attending guests were treated to a experience that rivaled a night out and culinary masterpiece of a meal in any clime or place in the globe – 4 hours of fellowship, social engagement and once in a lifetime food and flavor combinations that will make for great conversation for years to come. Everybody left the evening a winner (Think Oprah – “You get a car, You get a car, You get a car – everyone gets a car!), including the chefs, who experienced a re-kindled camaraderie borne of reminiscing about times past while working together in the same kitchen for the first time in years.
So, the storm has passed and the ethereal calmness that always follows is upon us. If there is anything left to reflect on, I would say it should be how quickly you can get to the restaurants of the participating chefs – #Winning. Cheers, my friends!