Generous Miami ... Say What?

When I told a colleague I was going to attend the Chefs Across America dinner at Norman's some nights ago, she had two questions for me: Does anybody still care? And, how do you know the money's getting to the right place?

Although they might sound cynical to the unjaded ear, both queries seemed valid to me. Chefs Across America was developed by Mickey Bakst, proprietor of the Detroit restaurant Tribute, in response to the September 11 events that left many food-service workers from the World Trade Center or their families displaced. The idea was that during January, a team of New York City chefs, including Michael Lomonaco from Windows on the World, would travel across America, joining celebrity regional chefs in hosting dinners. The price of a ticket to the dinners initially ranged from $250 to $1000, and the funds, ultimately to be donated to a few organizations that have been working to alleviate related hardships, would be augmented by monies raised from wine auctions during the dinners. Altogether about 40 top chefs were expected to participate, all of whom would come together for a gala dinner at the Regent Wall Street Hotel on January 28.

So, does anybody still care? And where does the money go, really?

I can't speak much to the latter question. Like many in my business, I've heard rumors that funds have been diverted from various events to cover the administrative costs. I've read stories about food-service workers making false claims about losing jobs or being injured as a result of the attacks and collecting benefits illegally. On the flip side, I've also been told positive gossip, stuff like how a private donor gave the Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund a million bucks solely to cover the administrative costs of the fund, which would allow all monies raised to go to victims and their families. What I know for certain is this: Because the Chefs Across America campaign was underwritten by Ford Motor Company, all proceeds are being donated directly to the CAA fund, without diversion to cover food, wine, and transportation costs. The CAA fund then plans to distribute monies to three charities: the Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund; City Harvest, which has been feeding recovery workers and New Yorkers who lost homes and businesses because of the attacks; and the Salvation Army Mobile Kitchen Program, which sends kitchen units to disaster areas.

As for caring, well, I believe like all the responses to the terror attacks, Bakst's plan was a noble one. But he has faced several impediments, not the least of which was the bottoming-out economy. The tickets to Norman's -- where Lomonaco, Tom Colicchio of Craft, Michael Romano of Union Square Café, and Daniel Boulud, arguably the most famous French chef in the world, planned to join Norman Van Aken in cooking up a fancy feast -- cost $500. Apiece. Add to that several tribute dining events that had already taken place, like Dine Out America on October 11 and the Miami Life Saveurs happening on November 8, and the fact that Miamians aren't much known for their compassion. And a precedent set in Atlanta, Dallas, and Washington, D.C., host cities that were forced to cancel the dinners owing to low ticket sales, even after they reduced the prices to about $75 per head. It was quite possible that this culinary community's pocketbooks and emotions also had been thoroughly tapped.

I suppose Miamians can still surprise us every once in a while. Norman's managed to sell 80 seats. And I should point out that while Van Aken allowed me to slip in without my checkbook (no matter how surface glam my job, my salary can't support that kind of commitment), there were very few media and public-relations people in attendance. Most of the crowd was made up of dedicated Norman's customers and, our hidden resource, the wine-distribution companies that sponsored tables for their reps. In addition, though the wines that had been donated did not perhaps go for as much as they could have under other circumstances, some, such as the Far Niente (1999 five-liter chardonnay and 1997 six-liter cabernet sauvignon), still managed to hit $2000.

But it was the commitment of the chefs that truly touched me. Even knowing that several dinners had been canceled, these guys made heroic efforts to head down to Miami. As Van Aken's partner Carl Bruggermeier noted in his opening remarks, "It's hard enough to get four chefs together for a photograph," let alone cooking in the same kitchen. Tom Colicchio had just opened the Craft Bar the night before and flew in that morning. (Colicchio hasn't inked it yet, but word is he's following like-minded gastronomic brethren and opening a location on South Beach.) Michael Romano is in the midst of planning the March launch of his new eatery, Blue Smoke, a pit barbecue-jazz bistro.

And, for the most part, they weren't just in town for the evening, nor were they seeking more attention than was their due. When the media got aromatic wind of a dinner planned for the chefs at 5061 the night before, they canceled it and rescheduled, like a celebrity wedding, at a "secret" location: Graziano's Parrillada Argentina, Van Aken's preferred steak house. The following evening I was amazed to see Boulud, Bakst, and Van Aken, among others, dining at Azul, where I had taken my mother-in-law for her birthday that evening. (It was a coincidence, boys. I swear I wasn't tipped.) My in-laws didn't know where to look first -- at some of the most well-known chefs in the nation, or at fitness guru-/diet freak Suzanne Somers, sitting at the table next to us and -- I'm not kidding -- eating chocolate cake.

As for the Norman's dinner itself, it's pretty hard to argue with hors d'oeuvres like deviled quails' eggs stuffed with foie gras (Van Aken); risotto with eggplant, anchovy, and mint (Romano); and roasted squab that was so crunchy and caramelized it was like a savory candy (Boulud). But the best part, of course, was watching the chefs put the courses together. Gathered around the exhibition table, every big name worked right alongside volunteer prep and sous chefs to plate the main ingredient, garnish, and wipe the rims -- tasks they usually reserve these days for Today show and TV Food Network cameras. As far as Chefs Across America goes, I have to admit: They play nice.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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