Behind the Scenes at a fine-dining charity dinner, built from scratch | VailDaily.com
Suzanne Hoffman
Behind the Scenes
Vail, CO Colorado

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Behind the Scenes at a fine-dining charity dinner, built from scratch

Special to the Daily

To take my loyal readers behind the scenes this season, I’ve worked in three fine dining restaurants, a short order cafe, and a bistro, and alongside a private chef for a wine pairing dinner. So when the opportunity to experience the transformation of the Edwards Interfaith Chapel’s modest kitchen into a fine dining nerve center recently arose, I grabbed it with gusto. The combination of working 12 hours on the line again, learning from two master chefs and supporting my church was intoxicating catnip I couldn’t resist.

Since opening in September 2010, the Edwards Interfaith Chapel and Community Center has been a much-needed venue for meetings and events for charities, religious and educational groups, serving the community in ways far beyond the founders’ vision. Six congregations conduct weekly services and community events on the premises. But on Saturday, March 17th, the “Great Room” became an opera hall and a fine dining restaurant for the first annual Venetian Night fundraiser. The promise of the beautiful young operatic voices of Rebecca Fay, Jessica Medoff, Michael Krzankowski from New York City and Santa Barbara, and Splendido owner and Executive Chef David Walford’s creative Italian-inspired cuisine drew generous chapel supporters to the event.

Stepping out of their comfort zone of Splendido’s state-of-the-art kitchen, Walford and Splendido Chef de Cuisine Brian Ackerman generously donated their time and talent to design and prepare a three-course menu of dishes reminiscent of Venice. Trust me, this was no rubber chicken charity function as Walford proved dining on a church fundraiser budget can still be great. The three-course dinner was preceded by antipasti prepared by Tom Walker with the help of Carl Walker and David Dennison and served during the silent auction while Deacon Steve Baird conducted a single malt Scotch.

The chefs and their team at Splendido spent weeks of planning and preparation before the actual day. With their team of volunteer cooks, Jane Shriner, Stephanie Regan and me, the chefs broke camp in Beaver Creek and moved food and utensils to Edwards. In a small kitchen normally used for relatively simple meals, this was quite a challenge. But under Walford’s patient and attentive leadership it flowed like the operatic strains drifting into the bustling kitchen.

Simplicity defines Italian cuisine from Sicily to the Alps. And nothing could be simpler in structure, but bold in flavor than the combination of seared sea bass (seasoned only with salt and pepper) and a salad of fennel, radish, olives, lemon and parsley. Walford wanted to serve fish to highlight the Mediterranean’s influence on Italian cuisine. But choosing a fish that would retain its flavor and moistness after the day-long process of being seared in the Splendido kitchen, placed on sheet pans and later reheated, was no easy task. Regan and Shriner spent two hours at Splendido that morning carefully searing the 47 pounds of sea bass filets to obtain a delicate, golden color. Not an easy task to achieve uniformity with such a large amount of fish.

Plating the dish was a high wire act for the volunteers on Walford’s line. Fast but pretty are not always congruent concepts for people unaccustomed to the high stress and fast pace of a plating line. I had done this before at Splendido – when I feared I would be like Lucille Ball in her classic chocolate-making assembly line skit – but I still felt a surge of adrenaline as the starting time drew near. One final direction was given when Walford asked that all unnecessary banter cease for focus was crucial. This was serious business.

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Two lines of volunteer cooks were set up across prep tables that Walford had leveled to facilitate sliding plates with ease. “Push, don’t touch the plates. Slide them!” We were admonished to push plates to avoid dreaded thumb smudges. Just because we were not in Splendido didn’t mean Splendido’s high standards didn’t apply. Each cook – with a mirror image across from him or her – was assigned an element to plate: beginning with salad by Jim Bittner and yours truly (not so easy because the handful had to be properly positioned in the plate’s center and contain a little of each ingredient), then just the right amount of lemon and olive oil sauce encircling the salad that Regan, and Tom Walker perfected somewhere between plates 30 and 40, followed by a little bit of olives and capers Lindy Bittner and Carl Walker placed over the salad, and finally topped with a moist sea bass filet Ackerman and Shriner carefully placed over the assembled salad. Walford garnished the fish with a slice of oven-dried lemon, gave a final inspection, wiped away any smudges or drips and handed over each of the 145 plates to servers. Under the watchful eye of Splendido dining room manager, Patrick Mildrum, the servers, including Splendido dining personnel Brad Davis, Bill Davies (bartender), William “Turtle” Eddins and John Mitchell, seamlessly rushed plates to table, returning for more until all were served. Act one over.

Favored starches in the cucina italiana include pasta and potatoes. Gnocchi is the idyllic marriage of these two and is found throughout Italy. To accompany the duck legs braised overnight in balsamic vinegar and red wine, Chef included gnocchi and wild mushrooms and topped it all with gremolata.

Despite having simple ingredients, gnocchi are labor intense. For the preceding two weeks, Splendido chefs devoted a few hours a day to making over 1,500 gnocchi for the event. Under Ackerman’s tutelage, Shriner and I browned the house-made frozen gnocchi to a nice “California tan” color. Cooled and packed into hotel pans, the gnocchi were later heated in the Alto sham oven and plated as the first element of the dish. Once again we were assigned our positions, lined up and shot out of the cannon. Although just as intense, this round went a little easier as the duck flew out the kitchen to eager diners. Now to the dolce.

As always, Splendido Pastry Chef Alex Daly, rose to the occasion with a dessert that placed an exclamation point after the first two courses. Semifreddo is that other sinful Italian frozen confection that, like its cousin gelato, is ubiquitous in Italy. Constructing 200 hazelnut semifreddo “domes” in batches consumed eight to ten hours over three days. Each was glazed with chocolate, not dipped, and frozen on sheet pans. Jane Shriner used a blowtorch to gently warm the top of each dome so the crushed hazelnuts would adhere. Now came the truly decadent part of the dish, caramel and gianduja sauces. Gianduja is a blend of sweet chocolate and hazelnut paste and most prominent in Piemonte where hazelnut trees abound. We spooned the gently warmed sauces around the semifreddo; caramel first then gianduja. Walford tested the reverse earlier, but the effect was not as pretty. With Chef spooning gianduja after me, he urged me to spoon faster, but not messy. Knowing how hard Chef Daly had worked and how passionate he is about that first sense to experience the dish, the eyes, I took special care to circle a spoonful of caramel sauce on each plate. It was backbreaking and tiring work, but when we were finished it was time to reap the reward – a huge spoon (or more) of caramel sauce over my own serving of semifreddo. Molto buono!

But the work wasn’t over. Time to clean. Good culinary professionals always clean their stations for the next person. Walford and Ackerman had lead us all evening in the construction of the dinner, now they filled pails with hot water and soap and lead us in the business of cleaning the kitchen. Once the kitchen was cleaned and pots, pans, utensils and food packed up for the ride back to Splendido, Deacon Steve brought into the kitchen his selection of single malts for the chefs to try. The twelve hours had flown by and once again I was in awe of the dedication, professionalism and generosity of these two chefs. A far easier, less complex menu could have been written, but what would have been the point? The bar is now set high for the quality of food for large fundraisers. This is one culinary opera that will be a hard act to follow.

Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. For more background information on her “Behind the Scenes” series, go to http://www.facebook.com/vail

valleysecrets. Email comments about this story to cschnell@vaildaily.com.