Whining and Dining

Food fight at the Phoenician

Pleasures of the Palettes, one of the Valley's most exclusive culinary fund raisers being held later this month at the Phoenician, has been leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of some local chefs.

Some chefs are unhappy that they've been asked to serve hors d'oeuvres at a reception instead of hosting a table. And some of the local talents think they're being "pushed aside" to make room for big-name chefs from across the country whom the event's coordinators, new this year, are touting.

The problem, it seems, is that the fund raiser is no longer being organized by someone who knows chefs and their persnickety ways. Former coordinator Bobbi Jo Haynes, an owner of Razz's Restaurant, has been replaced by staff from the nonprofit Center Against Sexual Abuse (CASA), for which the star-studded gala raises buckets of cash -- $200,000 last year. CASA executive director Stephanie Orr and staffers Rhonda Hoffman and Monica Powell recently have taken over planning for the party. In the process, says Haynes, Valley chefs -- not to mention the host for the party, the Phoenician -- have been left out of the loop.

Haynes, founder of Pleasures of the Palettes, slimmed down her role this year to adviser. Then, three weeks ago, she backed out completely, overwhelmed by the demands of a new, relocated Razz's that opens this week.

Now in its eighth year, Pleasures of the Palettes has grown from an intimate gathering of artists and chefs to its current status as a huge, nationally recognized fund raiser that attracts the likes of Jacques Pepin, Alex Stratta (Renoir of Las Vegas) and renowned French chef Roger Vergé (Le Moulin de Mougins in Nice). Local chefs include top names such as Christopher Gross, Robert McGrath, James Boyce and Michael DeMaria.

About 800 guests are expected for the October 28 bash, coughing up $500 per person to sit at a regular table, and up to $2,500 per person for a "premium" table. For their money, guests enjoy an hors d'oeuvre reception and a spectacular, multicourse meal cooked tableside by a celebrity chef.

What's set off some local chefs this year is that some have been asked to serve appetizers instead of a full meal. To compensate, they were named "Top Five Favorite Restaurants" in a club that includes Hapa, RoxSand, Gregory's Grill, Medizona and Rancho Pinot Grill.

One chef says that's false homage to appease the insult of being told to serve appetizers. "We were told it would be our honor to serve at the reception," says the chef, who asked to remain anonymous. "But one chef apparently said, 'No way -- if I'm not good enough to have a table to cook for in the main ballroom, then count me out.'" The unnamed chef also "feels dissed" and would like to step out, too, but doesn't want to leave the remaining chefs with more work.

While the event's elevated status means more money for CASA, the CASA staff's lack of experience and, in some cases, people skills, has caused some unneeded upset among local chefs, says Haynes.

Haynes says many of the problems boil down to lack of space. A dance floor has been added this year, which limits the amount of cooking space for chefs in the ballroom.

In order to still include as many talented cooks as possible, the special Top 5 were sent to the lobby, but are being given separate recognition. "No one ever wants to do the reception; they feel penalized," says Haynes.

Lack of space also means most local chefs have been paired off this year to prepare alternating courses for the same tables. Visiting chefs still get their own setups. "Some (local chefs) feel they're not being treated as special," acknowledges Haynes. "But teaming local chefs is not a slight. It's just that trying to coordinate teams of chefs from out of state, and out of the country, would be incredibly difficult. I guess nobody has explained this (to the chefs)."

CASA director Orr thinks chefs are getting their toques in a knot for no reason. "I have heard that people think we're valuing out-of-state chefs more," she says, "But it's not true. It's first come, first served for the guests to pick their chefs. In fact, even though Jacques Pepin is going to be there, the hosts of the $25,000 table chose Mark Tarbell." To clear things up, Orr says, CASA is sending a letter to its participating chefs.

Haynes admits she's frustrated in dealing with the inexperienced committee. "It hasn't been a smooth transition. [Committee] members were telling chefs what they would get to do for the event, instead of asking what we could do to make their contributions and volunteer efforts easier. I think for a time there was some self-inflated thinking (on the committee's part) that the event was doing the chefs a favor, instead of the other way around." In the meantime, Haynes says she has been burning up the phone lines, trying to calm everyone down.

Seems like the committee, Haynes or whomever better get in gear pretty quickly -- even a Top 5 chef like Chrysa Kaufman reports she doesn't know what's up and would like to hear from someone as to what's expected of her. "It's a really complicated event, I know, but I'd sure feel more appreciated if I could talk to someone nice and get it resolved," she says.

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