Friends of the James Beard Benefit Dinner Last Night in Scottsdale

If you've ever wondered why chefs do what they do, look no further than a kitchen on a night like last night to find the answer.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes an army of chefs to put on a James Beard-worthy meal -- and they have a whole lot fun doing it.

See also: - 2013 James Beard Award Semifinalists Announced: Four Arizona Candidates Make the Cut

Westin Keirland hosted the 11th annual Friends of James Beard Benefit dinner sponsored by the Scottsdale League of the Arts.

This was the first year the event wasn't held in the same week as the culinary festival, but moving the event up certainly didn't hurt attendance. In fact, this year's dinner included about 130 guests, more than in years past.

The event started off with a reception with appetizers from Chefs Chris Masco and Roberto Madrid of The Westin Keirland and deseo at The Westin Keirland.

Guests sipped on bubbles from Domaine Chandon (an event sponsor), which accompanied small bites and cold smoked eel. Domaine Chandon is a Napa Valley winery and a California transplant of the famous Moet and Chandon winery of France. Chadon specializes in sparkling wines, but reps shared a range of wines throughout the evening.

The reception gave guests a chance to mix and mingle with the chefs and each other. It was also a nice opportunity to admire the giant ice sculpture at the center of the patio, which doubled as the cold smoker that Chef Madrid used to prepare his dish.

Here's what was on the menu:

The first course, courtesy of Chef Douglas Rodriguez, came not only beautifully plated but also with a stunning combination of flavors. Rodriguez, executive chef and owner of De Rodriguez Cube in Miami, is the Johnston and Wales graduate behind the menu and concept at the Westin's deseo. The dish featured aged bone marrow and three types of caviar, accompanied by sweet corn cachapas paired with a glass of Chandon's étoile Brut.

Next up came one of our favorite dishes of the night from chef Alan Wong of Alan Wong's Restaurants in Hawaii.

He served a plate of opakapaka, or Hawaiian pink snapper, in a immensely flavorful miso-based broth with hints of ginger and lemongrass. At the bottom of the dish he hid a pork hash with a surprise ingredient of chestnuts. It was paired with the Chandon Yountville Vintage Brut -- an excellent pairing, and one of the best of the night.

A dinner of this quality would hardly be complete without some sort of fois gras and leave it up to a chef from California to seize the opportunity.

Chef Jason Fox of Commonwealth in San Francisco served a plate of Ginuea Hen with spring peas, young turnips, wheat berries, potato-seaweed cracker and foie gras emulsion. Though not the most memorable dish we tasted last night, the turnips were a true gift -- so tender and sweet we could have mistaken them for candy. Fox's course was paired with the Domaine Chandon Chardonnay. Though I usually have a strong bias toward Napa Valley chardonnays this wasn't the strongest wine in the Chandon repertoire.

If any one ever tries to tell you the seats next to the kitchen are the worst in the house, don't believe them -- at least not when you're talking about an open kitchen on an event night. Our seats on "the rail" of deseo's open kitchen gave us a front row seat to all the action. We marveled at how much fun the chefs had working in close proximity and helping plating each others food.

How often do you get a chance to see so many culinary stars at work, and having such a good time doing it?

Executive Chef and Owner of Crush in Seattle Jason Wilson offered quite a number of interesting ingredients in his dish.

Aside from the Abundant Acres rabbit, he dished out a plate of hedgehog mushrooms, roasted garlic-stinging nettles confit, asparagus and salsify. The salsify, which turns black and quite delicious when roasted, was great, but for this course, the wine really stole the show. The Domaine Chandon Pinot Meunier was a real treat since the varietal is fairly rare in the U.S. The grapes are commonly used in Champagne and make a wonderful, floral and light red wine that pairs well with a range of dishes.

The fifth course, pictured on the front page, was probably our favorite presentation with a whimsical combination of color and textures. We weren't surprised however, when we found out that Chef Perry Hoffman of etoile Restaurant in Napa Valley, has some incredible family linage -- his grandparents were the original owners of The French Laundry, the infamous northern California restaurant.

Hoffman offered roasted lamb loin with fennel, spiced yogurt and blood oranges. It was a fresh take on a classic combination and the oranges made a real mark on our palettes, in a good way. The pairing, Domaine Chandon Pinot Noir, complemented the dish quite well but wasn't the strongest offering from the winery.

To end the night, guests we treated to a goat's milk panna cotta from Chef Nicole Plue, founder of Sideshow by Nicole Plue. The cold and creamy dish was an excellent way to end the meal and her streusel made quite the impress on guests and the other chefs. We ended the night with a glass of Chandon Extra-Dry Riche.

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Lauren Saria
Contact: Lauren Saria