By Eric Schaefer
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By Robrt L. Pela
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It sounded like such a wonderful evening. Rubbing elbows with 100 dedicated Valley culinarians at an "Out of House" event benefiting the James Beard Foundation. Mingling with some of the Valley's most accomplished chefs. Being feted with cutting-edge food and wines while learning about what's hot in dinner parties today. We ended up with roughly one out of four. Call me fussy, but at $125 a ticket, I feel a little let down.
I also feel a little silly for not reading the fine print on the invitation. Had I studied the wording more carefully, I might have realized that I'd be attending a catered sales pitch for Tiffany & Company instead.
For those who'll admit to not knowing, an "Out of House" event is a Beard-sponsored gathering in a location other than at the Beard House, the original New York home of this celebrated "father of American gastronomy." After Beard's death in 1985, Julia Child preserved his home to showcase the country's culinary artists and to allow Foundation members to enjoy the creations of both established and emerging chefs from around the world. Beard literature promises that these dinners offer not only an opportunity to enjoy splendid meals, but a chance to discuss food with great chefs, wine professionals and other gastronomically minded members.
Unless you're attending a "Friends Of" James Beard benefit dinner, in which case it's a fund raiser. You'll rub elbows with anyone who buys a ticket. The chefs may or may not attend. You will savor great food and wine, but nothing necessarily innovative.
And, in our case, you'll learn that what's hot in entertaining is to spend all your money on Tiffany decorations.
While the Foundation says its membership is for "individuals with a keen interest in food and dining who want to stay abreast of the country's chef and restaurant scene," our table mates on a recent Friday evening included a couple who came because their children attend the same summer camp as the party's hosts. Also, a guest chef's wife and her mother, who shrugged and said, "Hey, it's an opportunity to get out of the house." My first warning that just about anyone could attend should have been when the Foundation agreed to sell me tickets.
The chefs, I'm told, were there, but we'll never know for sure. They were feverishly cooking in the three-car garage of the host's opulent Paradise Valley home, it was said. But three hours later, when my party friend and I finally gave up, we'd seen not the slightest glimpse of celebrity toque. The chefs did pop out to say thanks just after we left, according to the event's marketing rep. At least she thinks they did, since she left early herself.
My thought? If I was a top chef taking a busy weekend evening away from my restaurant, and I had a captive audience of folks happy to pay big bucks for an ordinary dinner, I'd sure be working that crowd, baby.
Not that you're ever going to get less than sumptuous fare from Valley icons like Mark Tarbell (Tarbell's and Barmouche), Robert McGrath (Roaring Fork), Michael DeMaria (Michael's at the Citadel), and Erasmo Kamnitzer (Razz's Restaurant). It's just that rather than sneak peeks into America's culinary revolution, we discovered near-to-exact representations from the chefs' everyday menus.
I'll never complain when fed Tarbell's Provençal truffle salad, McGrath's cassoulet of crayfish tails, DeMaria's roast juniper duck, or Kamnitzer's spectacular dessert symphony. I can suffer through gorgeous pairings of wines, unlimited champagne and Southwestern hors d'oeuvres prepared by Barbara Fenzl of Phoenix's Les Gourmettes Cooking School. I'm happier, however, just to enjoy the meal, without the pre-dinner sales pitch for Tiffany & Company.
Our country French decorated invitation prepared us for a "special presentation -- entertaining four to 400" by John Loring, design director for Tiffany's. When seated in the freezing, open-sided backyard tent, we were cheerfully told we'd be treated to a brief, 15-minute overview of spectacular party-making. Sounded good to me.
But easily a half-hour later we were still being subjected to Loring's slide show on centerpieces of the rich and famous. I'm happy he's prepared floral masterpieces (anchored by Tiffany pieces we can own, too, by the way) for friends like the Trumps, the Rockefellers, Bill Blass and American presidents. He's an engaging speaker. But as time crept by and we wound our way into home movies of tea parties he's decorated for his children, my companion and I began to get frightened. It was like QVC for VIPs, but there was no remote control to shut it off.
Finally, the speech ended, and 100 guests stampeded for the warm indoors. I made it to the rest room first, and was amused to find it decorated with tasteful displays of Tiffany perfumes, colognes and body lotions.
Had our plates been decorated with catalogues and order forms, the Foundation definitely would have lost this Friend. As it was, dinner was lovely. Next time, though, I'll read my invitation very, very carefully.
After Dinner Mint: Altos, the charming Spanish bistro at 44th Street and Camelback, has introduced a funky Loft Bar in what used to be its semi-private dining room upstairs. Open from 4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday, the Loft Bar serves Altos' full menu until 11 p.m. You'll find us there at happy hour, gorging on drink specials and free tapas, Monday through Friday from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. If the drinks are special enough, we may participate in Tuesday and Wednesday night's free dance lessons. Salsa, rumba, flamenco or tango, anyone? Lessons are limited to 20 brave souls per evening.
Contact Carey Sweet at 602-744-6588 or online at email@example.com