Behind the Scenes: Rounding up a grateful harvest
September 9, 2013
Editor's note: This is the third and final installment of a three-part series on a recent Roundup River Ranch fundraiser dinner. Visit http://www.vaildaily.com to read the first two stories.
The Roundup River Ranch Grateful Harvest dinner ran on time like a Swiss train. OK, there were a few unscheduled stops, but for the most part, Gareth Heyman and Betsy Mordecai, of Morevents, in the dining room and Heather Weems, coordinating chef, in the kitchen kept things chugging along on schedule.
Piemonte comes to Colorado
As soon as Weems handed off the last plate of chef Sergio Howland's Norwegian salmon, everyone shifted gears for the next course. It was time to plate Zino's chef Nick Haley's wild boar on Piave polenta with San Marzano tomatoes and grilled artichoke.
Nothing says "Piemonte" more than wild boar (cinghiale). As one Barolo chef told me recently, "The cinghiale calls out to the polenta." Haley's wild boar from Broken Arrow Ranch in Texas screamed for his polenta blended with Piave, one of Haley's favorite, versatile cheeses. Although it's a typical autumn dish, Haley decided to walk on the wild side — pun intended — and serve game.
When I asked Haley, "Why boar?" he answered, "Because of the farm theme, I thought it would be ironic to use a farmer's long time 'pest' as my entree." Haley has "grown fond" of the farmer's pest this past year, having used it successfully in wine tasting dinners and on the menu. He was confident the dish would please. It did.
It takes a city
Remember that village needed to plate Kelly Liken's Palisade peach puree? For chef Nick Haley's wild boar, it took a city. It was all hands were on deck for this complex, yet amazingly simple, rustic dish.
Chef Paul Ferzacca's hors d'oeuvre were the first taste sensations to exit the kitchen at 4:30 p.m. Three hours later, he was still hard at work alongside the other chefs. Ferzacca is no stranger to the complexities of a four-course dinner for 305 people. I was no stranger to working with him. He was always smiling, but was also the quietest chef in the kitchen. Still waters run deep. Ferzacca may be quiet, but he's observant and ready to help in any way possible.
Now as the entire population of the kitchen gathered to plate the eight elements of Haley's Piemontese dish, Ferzacca sprang into action, rearranged the two long folding and helped organize an assembly line that would have made Henry Ford proud.
Without a break in the action, the chefs lined up, mirror images on both sides of the table, and plated nearly 300 wild boar servings and several plates of the vegetarian option — sauteed porcini from secret locations in local forests over sauteed spinach. Not a bad night to be a vegetarian!
Over 12 hours of prepping and 10 hours of cooking time preceded the plating of the 20 braised boneless boar shoulders. Within 20 minutes of serving, it was over. Well, at least for that course. More was still to follow.
Often we see chicken or beef in a myriad of forms as the main course at fundraisers. Haley's risky choice of wild boar surprised many, but the lean meat over creamy polenta was wildly popular. Most plates returned empty to the dish pit.
With Haley's wild boar, Greg Eynon, co-owner and wine director of vin48, headed south to Puglia in the "heel of the Italian boot" for his pairing. Cantele 2008 Salice Salentino Reserva is a blend of 85 percent negroamaro and 15 percent malvasia nera. Eynon chose it for its "luscious, dark fruit profile, impressive acidity along with a slightly rustic quality that pairs well with braised dishes like cinghiale." Once again, Eynon hit the jackpot with his eclectic pairing instincts.
Four Seasons' Executive Chef Jason Harrison is no stranger to the Grateful Harvest dinner. Last year, Harrison and pastry chef Rachelle Hyder donated the dessert course for less than 250 diners. This year, they made lemon meringue pie, a nostalgic desert for many, for more than 300.
From my observations, desserts at multi-course events can be a tricky, particularly in a collaborative environment where the dessert chef lacks control over the preceding courses. However, the chefs not only collaborated in the kitchen during service, but in the menu's design. After the wild boar, Harrison wanted to provide a light dessert bursting with summer flavors as the final movement of this incredible culinary symphony.
Why that choice? Harrison sought to "showcase a great product and provide a different take" on this classic dish. The "pie" actually wasn't a pie. Each serving was a hollow meringue cylinder filled with lemon cream and topped with champagne macerated summer berries and candied rose petals. Harrison chose champagne not only for the taste, but to make the berries "sparkle" with a little something extra.
An hour away from their spacious 400-square-foot air-conditioned pastry kitchen in Vail, Hyder and Harrison finalized their prepping on a makeshift table in the middle of a crowded pantry in the back of the kitchen. Nothing flummoxes the laidback Canadian chef. After his days plating thousands, Harrison joked, "Give me a closet and I can feed 500."
For the final time that night, chefs prepared a plating assembly line. Like a fast-moving card game, plates were dealt onto every available surface in the kitchen except the dish pit. A quarter-sized squirt of lemon cream glued each meringue shell to a plate. Carefully, Hyder and Harrison piped creamy lemon filing into the meringue shells. In choreography gleaned from experience, the other chefs and cooks worked quickly to finalize the dish carefully spooning berries and sprinkling candied rose petals onto each "pie." The servers whisked the plates away, knowing the end was near which meant time to dig into leftovers in the kitchen! One table even asked for seconds, which they received.
To pair with the creamy, tart dessert, Sonnenalp's Jarrett Quint chose a lively, semi-sweet Moscato d'Asti from Ca' del Re, which Scott Lauck, of Synergy Fine Wines, generously donated. The low alcohol content and freshness of the wine was a perfect vinous finale for a night full of cocktails, bubbles, beer and wine.
Dining with a purpose
As I mentioned in part one, food is a unifying force, particularly useful to bring together people to support worthy causes. In addition to their generous donation of time and resources, Liken, Howland and Haley raised another $63,000 for the private dinners they donated that were sold in the after-dinner live auction. The $734,000 raised that evening will make camp a reality for more than 650 children and their families next year.
Reflecting on this event, I observed one stark difference from last year. In 2012, when the last plate left the kitchen, the exodus of chefs began. This year, chefs, sommeliers and cooks left the kitchen not for home, but to watch the auction and chat with guests. Here, meeting campers and their parents, they witnessed firsthand the fruits of their culinary labors. Often chefs don't have that opportunity for immediate gratification.
Chefs love receiving accolades, but the gracious, emotional thanks that grateful parents showered upon them confirmed the worthiness of their donations. The camp coffers benefitted from the guests' largess, but the chefs and sommeliers benefitted from the affirmation that food can nourish the spirit as well as the body.
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blogs are http://www.suzi knowsbest.com and http://www.winefamilies.com. Email comments about this story to cschnell@vail daily.com.