Dining in support of education
July 22, 2012
Restaurants are divided into two general spaces – back and front of the “house.” Most everyone knows what the “front of the house” is like. But few have personally witnessed the back of the house, where culinary experiences – good and bad – are created. So when my passions for writing and culinary arts collided in January, I put aside the practice of law to write full time and explore the culinary world behind the scenes. It was as though my Sicilian grandmother was calling me to acknowledge my roots and give into the kitchen muses. Who was I to argue?
My weekly column emanates from my “experiential research” in restaurants. Being a casual observer who shadows chefs and is given a tour was not my vision. I am not a chef, never wanted to be one, but I wanted to find out what it was like to experience first hand the energy of a restaurant kitchen and share that with my readers.
Amongst other jobs, I wanted to don a chef’s jacket, roll up my sleeves and feel the agony – and the ecstasy – of 12-hour shifts as a cook. Feeling the agony means sore feet, aching spine, blinding fatigue and the occasional nick of a sharp knife. The ecstasy comes with that surge of adrenaline when I collapse into bed after a long, successful day. Success sometimes means simply not being in the way or getting scolded, but most often, it’s making a worthwhile contribution in the creation of beautifully plated dishes that please all of the senses. Most of all, I wanted to give a voice to unheralded worker bees the chefs rely on each night. Only by walking in their shoes could I accomplish that while taking my readers on a virtual trip into the unseen world on the other side of kitchen walls.
My column sprung from my involvement in the local bailliage (chapter) of Chaine des Rotisseurs. Chaine is the oldest global gastronomic organization of more than 22,000 professionals and gastronomes dedicated to preserving fine dining and enjoying the camaraderie of the table. But it’s not all about the food. We dine with a purpose to pay homage to culinary artistry and raise money for scholarships to study it.
As the bailli – French for “sheriff,” but please just think of me as local chapter president – I work with both well-established and nascent chefs and talented gastronomes to organize unique culinary events. So with six months of restaurant experiences under my belt, I am pausing a moment to take you behind the scenes with Chaine as we prepare for our inaugural Chefs of Chaine collaborative fundraiser in support of culinary education.
Scheduling summer events is the hardest challenge. Bravo, International Dance Festival and the usual happenings at the adult summer camp known as the Vail Valley all complicate planning. We are blessed with a growing number of chef members and make every attempt to plan events for Sundays and Mondays, when most escape their kitchens. So with only two optimal days per week available to us and eight weeks of music and dance festivals to work around, scheduling is tricky.
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This year, we have three events within seven weeks on our summer schedule, a monumental challenge for our volunteer-members. But they love challenges and always rise to the occasion. Last weekend, we enjoyed executive chef – and Chaine member – Steven Topple’s delectable dining experience on Ludwig’s terrace. Next week, we will dine on roast pig at our summer – charcoal-less – barbecue. But the penultimate event is our inaugural Chefs of Chaine collaborative dinner at Splendido on Aug. 14 to raise money for local culinary education.
In repeating the model we successfully employed in 2010, several of our Chaine culinary professionals are collaborating to create a unique dining experience. Profits from the event go through the Chaine Foundation to Colorado Mountain College’s Culinary Institute. In 2010, Chaine Vail presented to CMC culinary director and Chaine member chef Todd Rymer a sizeable check for culinary scholarships. I am always humbled to see how small amounts awarded to deserving candidates can profoundly impact an aspiring chef’s ability to pursue a culinary education. This is what makes Chaine so wonderful and energizes our chefs to donate their time, resources and creativity.
Chefs David Walford (Splendido), Daniel Joly (Mirabelle), Steven Topple (Sonnenalp Resort) and Justin Hugill (QUINNtessential Chefs and bailli of Denver) will join Splendido chefs Brian Ackerman, Quintin Wicks and Alex Daly in Splendido’s kitchen in Beaver Creek. Their masterpiece will be a memorable evening in Colorado of Albese cuisine from the Italian piedmont. The menu, which is currently a guarded secret, will include several hors d’oeuvres served during a pre-dinner reception followed by a five-course feast. Although each chef has his own course to prepare, they enjoy the rare opportunity to work together and support one another once their course has been served. It is a true collaboration of masters.
Pulling together such an event, especially under tight time constraints, is a mammoth undertaking. As owner and executive chef of the host restaurant, Walford is responsible for coordinating the final menu and budget with the other chefs. But food is only one element, albeit a crucial one, the culinary alchemists need for their magic to be complete.
Like a beautiful painting, culinary artistry requires an enjoyable environment to optimize the experience. Setting the scene at Splendido is in the capable hands of Jane Shriner, Chaine member and board director. Shriner, whose floral arrangements have graced tables at Chaine events throughout the year, possesses creative talents and an eye for even the tiniest of details. Through this attention to detail and quest for perfection, Shriner can transform a nice experience into the grand one the chefs deserve. Member of both New York City and Vail bailliages Lynette Dallas is working tirelessly to energize the philanthropic community and help with product and wine donations. No doubt with the energy and hard work of the chefs and the Vail Chaine members, this inaugural culinary fundraiser will help transform dreams and aspirations of local culinary students into reality.
Despite my challenging summer schedule of Chaine events, the most important to me being the scholarship fundraiser, I am still conducting interesting experiential research. My next experience will be as a Bravo production crewmember on Wednesday during the New York Philharmonic’s residency. That will no doubt be an intriguing experience to share.
So thank you for indulging me this week. I wanted to share with you my life in the Chaine. I owe so many of my behind the scenes experiences to Chaine professionals and their colleagues in the valley. Hopefully, you will join the Chefs of Chaine and our members and guests on Aug. 14 as we join together to dine with a purpose in support of culinary education. Who knows? Perhaps in the future, one of the culinary students we help today will welcome us to experience the back of the house in their own restaurant.
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 information visit http://www.facebook.com/vailvalley
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