Miamian Beauty

Wearing nothing but a thong, a young woman lay on a table in a seductive pose amid a drift of red rose petals. The open bar was jammed with customers. An extensive buffet offered everything from corn dogs to caviar. So where were we?

No, not Miami Gold. Not Porky's or the Pink Pony. Not even Kiss.

Please, it's so obvious: We were at Baleen, attending the much-hyped Miami Life Saveurs event to benefit the Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund.

The "buffet" actually was groupings of patriotically decorated tables, where more than 50 of our local chefs set out their interpretations of American cuisine. The open bar was a reception table stocked with Moët & Chandon splits with straws in them (really, straws). The young woman was indeed nearly naked, but her entire body had been painted to resemble an American flag, a process that took about two hours, she said. She was garnish for Rumi's station, and behind her, co-chefs Scott Fredel and J.D. Harris were smirking just a little and scooping up spiny lobster macaroni and cheese. Not that anybody noticed their food. As Norman Van Aken put it: "Betsy Ross never looked so good."

Probably about 75 percent of the men there thought Nude Betsy alone justified the $75 ticket. Others were probably just as pleased with the Johnnie Walker spirits available at a number of indoor and outdoor bars and Johnny Vinczencz's crab/mashed-potato pie with lobster ice cream (really, lobster). As for the women, those of us who were jealous of Nude Betsy's breasts, which were nowhere near her stars-and-stripes armpits, had plenty of other good stuff to stare at, like, well, Scott Fredel and J.D. Harris, for starters. And Kris Wessel's oyster pies, which he and his delicious little daughter served near a profusion of hand-painted, flag-hued oyster shells. And Van Aken's days-old scruff of beard, which he neglected to shave for the occasion because, his wife Janet noted, "Norman has a baby face. If he shaves too often, he looks like raw hamburger."

But as talk turns to hamburgers and babies, I should note that there were none of the spoiled latter variety in evidence. Plenty of big names but no big heads. Which was quite startling when you consider the collective culinary celebrity that was thronging the restaurant on a Thursday night, when most chefs would be reluctant to leave their own kitchens: Allen Susser, who has just published his greatly anticipated The Great Mango Book; Michelle Bernstein, whose restaurant, Azul, will be awarded Best New Restaurant in the December issue of Esquire; and Jonathan Eismann, whose second restaurant, Thom, in New York City is "jamming," he says, despite the general industry slowdown. Norman Van Aken didn't even flinch (though I laughed outright) when a partygoer pointed out a spill on the floor and asked the renowned chef "to get one of his guys to clean it up." Not that Van Aken was about to whip off his chef's coat and cover the offending moisture, even if the guy was with a group of personal-injury attorneys, as he claimed.

Indeed the only bratty subjects were a number of attendees themselves. Not that some of us didn't have a right to complain. Organized in just five weeks by Lee Schrager of Southern Wine & Spirits and Robbin Haas of Baleen, along with his board of toques -- Bernstein, Willis Loughhead, and Michael Schwartz -- a party of this magnitude (740 people paid for tickets in advance and another 200 or so showed up at the door to dish out $100 rather than $75, the cost for not planning ahead) was bound to have some problems. Problemo numero uno was parking. Grove Isle, where Baleen is located, is really just a collection of privately owned condos and the hotel/restaurant. It barely has enough parking for people who come to visit the residents. Plus, a single-lane guardhouse where the security folks take pictures of every driver but not every occupant of the vehicle -- which lets you off the hook if you're a terrorist who sits in the passenger's seat, duh -- caused a 30-minute backup. And after waiting behind their wheels for half an hour, drivers were then instructed to turn around and head a half-mile up the road to Mercy Hospital, where they could park and take a shuttle to the event. Damn but people were pissed.

¿Numero dos? Not enough chow. Chefs were instructed to make 300 portions of their barbecue buffalo sandwiches (Ortanique), sweet-potato tortellini with duck confit and chanterelles (Mark's South Beach), and what-have-you. Of course plenty of participants made more than that, and some, like Michael Schwartz, also brought party favors like miniature candy apples. But the end result was that the event, which began at 6:00 p.m., had begun to run out of food by 7:00, a time when most people were still trying to get on the bus. The open bars fared slightly better, but the champagne was kaput by 7:30 along with the red wine. White wine dribbled out by 8:00 or so.

And difficulty three? We couldn't keep Robbin Haas away from the Rumi table. If Nude Betsy was a string, he was the yo-yo being yanked.

Other straits about which the oblivious guest knew nothing were averted, however. For instance the parking situation at one point looked so dire that the organizers were considering asking the chefs, who had been able to valet earlier in the day, to move their cars to Mercy. Fortunately they realized in time that no chef was going to blithely drive off without driving away, or at least to the nearest bar. Then there were the fire alarm and sprinkler systems, which looked to be in danger of being activated by Bernstein's sautéed foie gras over cherry-apple cobbler with pink peppercorn crust. Only she ran out of foie gras before that happened. Good thing she had plenty of that yummy cobbler to keep the masses at bay.

And most of us kept it together, at least until we got to the after-party at Nemo and devoured Loughhead's bean salad and raided Schwartz's bar until he begged us to leave some vodka for his customers, enough to realize that satisfying our hungers was just a very small part of what the evening was all about. The proceeds will go to the families of the victims who worked in the food industry at the World Trade Center. As organizer Haas noted during the pre-event photo shoot, when the 50-odd chefs gathered for a group shot of unprecedented proportions: "The only thing that could have made this a better day is if we didn't have to do it at all."

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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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