Wolfgang Puck, co-founder of the Meals on Wheels event.
Barbara Lazaroff, also co-founder of the event.
Twenty-eight years ago a young Austrian Chef named Wolfgang Puck and his then wife, Barbara Lazaroff, opened a small pizza and pasta place on the Sunset Strip called Spago (an Italian slang term for spaghetti). Shortly thereafter, some of the nuns at St. Vincent's Hospital who they knew asked for help in raising some money for a program the ladies of mercy had created. Wolf and Barbara conceived of a small food event on their parking lot; they would tent it for the evening and charge a small admission fee (50 dollars) to have 300 of their customers come and dine on food and wine provided by five chef friends and 20 vintners... "It was hot and stuffy in that tent, and we ended up spending more money on the event than we took in, so we had to add a few hundred dollars out of our own pocket so we would have a donation for them," Wolf remembered last night. "And someone took all 200 silver forks which my friend, New Orleans Chef Paul Prudhomme, had provided for his blackened redfish."
Piero Selvaggio of Valentino served food at the original event... and again on Saturday.
It was an inauspicious start to what would become the grandfather of all monster food festival, the annual American Food & Wine Festival benefiting Meals on Wheels, which celebrated its 28th year Saturday night at its huge venue on the Western street of the Universal Film Studio. Barbara Lazaroff told me that prior to this evening they had raised some $20 million over the years for the program, which serves 5,000 meals each day to Los Angeles homebound seniors and disabled citizens regardless of race, religion or ability to pay. Behind it all is the wonderful Sister Alice Marie Quinn (known as Sister Sam to us all) who has spent the last three decades overseeing the preparation and delivery of nutritious meals to those who need them most, frail seniors and seriously ill adults. She told me that she starts each day with a prayer for all of us at the event who support this effort. Thank you and amen.
Chef Ari Rosenson of Wolf's Cut Restaurant served up slices of this 60-pound saddle of beef to the 3,000 hungry diners.
Famed Chef Charlie Palmer (left) with Wolf (center) and Palmer's right hand Las Vegas associate, Bernard Erpicum, who helped Wolf found the event 28 years ago!
And I've been privileged to have attended every one of the events over the years, charting its growth to the humongous food festival this past Saturday evening, where 3,000 people paid $300 a ticket for the dubious honor of eating and drinking themselves into oblivion at the hands of more than fifty of the world's top chefs and spirits companies. Talk about self-indulgence, wow!
What I will regale you about today is the rather incredible feast which these talented chefs and staff served up for the fortunate hordes which inundated the vast Western-themed studio back lot. Think of Thomas Keller (The French Laundry, Per Se, etc.) at his Beverly Hills Bouchon Bistro booth serving up a mind-blowing assortment of raw shellfish...oysters from bays all over the country, lobster claws and mussels, clams and periwinkles... and, knowing their proclivity for pristine-fresh and sustainable seafood, it is one of the few places I will indulge myself with such raw pleasures. Told Exec Chef Rory Hermann the old chestnut: "The bravest man in the world was the first man to ever eat an oyster." He had heard it before, of course. The Spago family was present in all its infinite varieties, from Hawaii to Bachelor Gulch, Dallas to Beverly Hills and downtown L.A. (WP 24) with Spago's Exec Pastry Chef Sherry Yard overseeing a Dessert Lounge later in the evening which featured seven of the nation's top pastry chefs offering up their concoctions... why did I eat that last piece of chocolate? (Because it came from Francois Payard, the dean of Manhattan's confectioners.) Saw friends not seen in years... Shep Gordon from his home in Maui, the man who once managed the business affairs of over 70 chefs until he retired to the good life. Lydia Shire from her various Boston eateries, the queen of offal, and yes, Nobu Matsihisa, my 'brother,' grayer and more portly (soon to be a grandfather), but still the bellwether of what Japanese chefs have accomplished since his start at Matsuhisa in 1987, when I wrote the very first article about him and began the sushi bar craze which exists to this day.
Nobu Matsuhisa has cooked at every event, as well as at the special Sunday Spago dinner.
I brought my buddy Freddie Levinson, who drove his massive Porsche, so I could indulge in a few quaffs of my particular passion, Laetita Wines from Arroyo Grande in the Central Coast, their Brut Cuvee NV sparkling wine the equal of most champagnes being served, their Pinot Noir possibly the best in California. My new friends at Wolfgang Puck's Iced Coffee handed out 3,000 bottles of the four flavors to every departing guest, a welcome drink when I awoke this morning. Sponsor AUDI had beautiful cars spotted throughout the venue, and I lusted for their new convertible. The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas Hotel had a stunning building touting their December opening, which should be quite a party. Their array of outstanding restaurants will include those from Chefs Jose Andres, David Myers, Scott Conant and others. Spoke to Scott abut his Scarpetta opening next month at the Montage in Beverly Hills, which should be a seminal event for the fall season. (His signature dish is pasta with basil and oregano, go figure.)
Among the many wines served was the spectacular Laetitia Brut Cuvee NV.
Fiji Water was everywhere, thank God, assuaging the thirst which so much spicy food evoked. At their booth, Master Chef Charlie Palmer was offering up a smooth, avocado mousse. In the course of the evening I think I consumed five or six bottles of the satiny smooth water, "untouched by human hands" 'til my grubby ones assailed it. No chef was without a few bottles of Fiji sitting next to him; in fact, Honolulu's Chef Sam Choy had mixed the water with some of his special chili sauce to make chile water used in preparing his so-spicy tuna poke.
Chef Charlie Palmer cooked at the Fiji booth and then at the Sunday Spago dinner.
In no particular order, some of the chefs and their dishes in which I (over)indulged included: Angelini's Gino Angelini and his Risotto with White Truffles; Diamond Head's Sam Choy and his Poke Springroll; Lissa Doumani & Hiro Sone of Terra and their Panzanella with Burrata; David McIntyre of WP 24 and the most luscious Lobster Spring Roll; Dean Fearing of Fearing's in Dallas and a 'Chicken Fried' Texas Quail which had every chef running over to sample its crunchy goodness;
Mozza Chef Nancy Silverton (left) adapted a wacky headwrap, with Phil Rosenthal.
Myy great friend and mentor, Spago's Lee Hefter, had his Chino Farm vegetables on hand for an Indian-spiced Caramelized Sweet Corn & Vegetable Salad (yes, we needed something healthy amidst all of this porky indulgence); Spago's new Chef de Cuisine Tetsu Yahagi was offering tunning Sesame-Crusted Prawns (on a whole grain buckwheat salad); Corton, in Manhattan's Tribeca, had the idiocyncratic Paul Liebrandt serving a Jerusalem Artichoke Velouté which was amazing; the legendary Alfred Portale of Gotham Bar & Grill delivered a Grilled Strip Loin, but it was the accompanying creamed corn with jalpeno, Manchego cheese and pequillo peppers which knocked me out; Ari Rosenson of Puck's Cut in Beverly Hills and Las Vegas was the star of the evening for me, hefting huge 60-pound saddles of beef onto a large rotisserie and roasting them for hours before carving off slices for an eager, hungry line of diners! A word of special note for Piero Selvaggio of Valentino in Santa Monica and in Las Vegas: as one of Wolf's oldest friends, he was serving food at the first event at that tent on Sunset almost three decades ago....a truly great and charitable man. (And his pasta ain't too bad, either.)
Chef Paul Prudhomme came from New Orleans; he also was at the first event 28 years ago.
I was delighted to see the reclusive, so talented Julian Serrano away from kitchen at LV's Bellagio Hotel and his Picasso there; his Shrimp Fritto was a dream of a dish. Ran into Tim Zagat, who gave me a copy of his new, just published 2011 Zagat Guide to Los Angeles and Southern California Restaurants, while complaining about being ignored by the L.A. Times. Got a picture of the lovely Nancy Silverton and her balloon headdress while consuming a corn dog (yes!, the best I've ever eaten) and some bratwurst from her Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza. Stopped Chef Jose Andres and handed him a bottle of Wolfgang Puck's Iced Coffee, which he loved, while we discussed his raging hot Bazaar at the SLS Hotel. The remarkable lack of great Greek food in L.A. was the subject of a brief discussion I had with Chef Costas Spiliadis of Estiatorio Milos, opening at the Cosmopolitan in L.V., all the while I was chomping on a Red Snapper which had been baked in salt the Hellenic way. No, I didn't ignore the dessert offerings, but I always head first for Sherry and her associates, in this case WP 24's talented Sally Camacho and her Roasted Almond Panna Cotta.
I must pay tribute to the Festival Director, Joan Wrede, for again pulling off one of the greatest food festivals in culinary history, and to the Puck-Lazaroff Foundation for making it happen, with $600,000 raised on Saturday. Sunday night was the very elegant Spago dinner where six world-class chefs cooked a dinner for the wealthy donors...had two of the best dishes in memory: Charlie Palmer cooked a Thyme-roasted Sonoma Squab whch was rosy and juicy delicious, eaten by holding it in my fingers, and Santi Santamaria (don't you love that name) of Barcelona, who cooked a Young Lamb Pastilla and Rack which was rare and succulent, my favorite dish of the weekend.
All of the departing guests on Saturday received a bottle of Wolfgang Puck's Iced Coffee.
Now I will then go on a long, much-needed fast (at least for a few days)....til the next event Sunday, the Special Oympics Pier de Sol event at the Santa Monica Pier... with 35 restaurants serving up food. Oh, well, it's a tough job... but someone's gotta do it!