- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

The meal began with truffle-laden braised pork bellies with sweet-and-sour celery and ended with a red-raspberry-strewn plate bearing a warm chocolate tart under a mound of cranberry ice cream and well, you get the idea.

Saturday evening's Chef Salute portion of a weekend-long Fine Art of Cuisine extravaganza at the Tysons Corner Ritz-Carlton was over the top in terms of non-PC caloric indulgence. Nearly 350 people paid $150 apiece for what amounted to a seven-course experiment in cooperative and competitive gourmet living by some of the country's finest chefs.

Each course was prepared by a different renowned culinary artist. After the "appe-teasers" came Michael Ginor's Hudson Valley foie gras flan with fig glaze, followed by Nancy Oakes' Dungeness crab legs with white asparagus and caviar remoulade, Michael Mina's salmon Wellington (with more black truffles), Rick Laakkonen's short ribs of beef beside a crepe of squash, ricotta and raisins in lemon-port-wine sauce and Francois Payard's chocolate tart. The Ritz's own Laurent Lhuillier produced the petits-fours.

Considering the coordination required, the atmosphere backstage was remarkably relaxed. "This is a vacation for us," remarked Ritz Tysons' banquet chef, Ahmad Masouleh, accustomed to caring for 1,000 hungry souls at a stretch.

The whole shebang was accompanied by an abundance of wines from Napa Valley's Cakebread Cellars, whose own Dennis Cakebread was one of the occasion's two honorees. The other celebrity of the night, Gary Danko, 46, of Gary Danko restaurant in San Francisco, resisted the idea of an award just a bit, saying jokingly beforehand that "maybe when you start to get honored it means you are getting old."

Anyone worrying about participants' waistlines could take heart at the sight of couples dancing off excess pounds between courses to the lively rhythms of the Fresh Air band.

Because it was the fifth annual such event, the format was familiar. Saturday's dinner was preceded by a stand-up reception featuring a silent auction. (Hors d'oeuvres included oysters with lemon ice and caviar-topped crispy cauliflower puffs.) A fully furnished bed set up in the foyer showed off fancy Frette bedding that went for $1,050 in the live auction toward a total of more than $20,000 raised on behalf of the McLean-based Neediest Kids organization..

Obviously, Mr. Cakebread's wines were going down well.

In addition to giving local folk some palatial taste treats for their palates, the get-together also united some very friendly chefs.

"You have to have fun along the way," volunteered Mr. Laakkonen of New York's Ilo restaurant, explaining the camaraderie that exists alongside the competitive nature of their business.

"We are a close-knit group. I consider this charity plus fun," said Bradley Ogden of San Francisco, busy behind the scenes with son Bryan, of Las Vegas. (Both are chefs.)

Mr. Ogden was a classmate of Mr. Danko's at the Culinary Institute of America, and Mr. Danko supervised Ritz Tysons' executive chef, John Coleman, when Mr. Danko earned a four-star rating for the Ritz-Carlton restaurant in San Francisco.

Mr. Ogden waved off a question about whether the evening's patrons not necessarily all foodies would appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship involved in much of the preparation. "Some do, some don't," he said breezily.

Good feelings dominate, Mr. Danko said, because "we're out of [our own] kitchen for the night" and temporarily out from under the bottom-line pressures of a profession that is notoriously fickle and peripatetic, especially when the economy slows.

"We are being tested now," he said. "People still have money, but they will be more selective. They will return to a restaurant where they feel welcome. I tell my staff that 'the people coming through the door pay your salaries.'"

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