Guests at the 25th Anniversary Great Chefs Dinner & Silent Auction, held Sunday, March 22, at the Skaneateles Country Club, enjoyed a continual feast for both the palate and the eyes. The extended food tasting began at 4 p.m., featuring a dizzying array of hors d’oeuvres and an open bar, followed by an ultimate gourmet seven-course dinner, which concluded five hours later. Imagine trying to work your way through more than 20 hors d’oeuvres before moving on to a seven-course meal. Thirty-five chef members of the Central New York Chapter of the American Culinary Federation, along with another 20 assisting chefs, plus a professional waitstaff from local restaurants, executed this fund-raiser for the Onondaga-Oswego Chapter of the American Red Cross.
Chris Cesta, executive chef/owner of the Inn Between in Camillus, oversaw the elegant presentation. Cesta, who has played an active part in all of the past dinners but the first, was the ideal choice to lead this year’s culinary extravaganza. “This venue offers us the opportunity to showcase the bountiful and varied talents of chefs in our region,” he said. Remembering past dinners that ran way beyond 10:30 p.m. and included as many as 10 large-portion courses, Cesta said, “This year we’ve trimmed the courses down to seven with the focus on flavor, texture and color, instead of size.”
Guests were hard pressed not to fill up on the tasty appetizers served by a waitstaff that passed trays of 10 finger foods, plus stations where chefs doled out beautifully displayed culinary wares. A beverage station offered selections of beer from the Empire Brewing Company, wines from Knobb Creek, Baker’s, Basil Hayden, Bookers, Wine Table & Sommelier and Dr. Frank’s Winery.
The full-size bar/tasting station that served up drinks made from Swedka vodka was a visual showstopper, with thick blocks of ice with a carving of a soaring sailfish sitting atop one corner. Professional ice carver Stan Kolonko of the Ice Farm in Auburn created the sculpture. Kolonko recently competed in the World Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks, Alaska, with the assistance of Chris Uyehara. Uyehara again assisted Kolonko here, along with Jerry Perun, executive chef and event host, from the Skaneateles Country Club.
The trio, who are chefs and ACF members, created an ice carving tiered like a wedding cake, which was used as a staging device for a display of mouthwatering sushi, accompanied by hot, pungent wasabi and pickled ginger. The sushi was prepared by Joelle Mollinger, executive chef/owner of Joelle’s French Bistro in Skaneateles.
Mollinger was also responsible for the dinner’s third course, a lamb tagine with couscous and red pepper coulis, gleaned from her French-Moroccan roots. You couldn’t miss the vivacious blond, clad in a petal pink chef’s coat, which made her stand out prominently from her colleagues, both male and female, who all wore white.
John Melnyczuk, chef/owner of the Welcome Inn in Syracuse, took smoked and cured seafood to new heights. A slathering of honey and Dijon mustard turned his pecan-crusted, cold smoked salmon into a singular, culinary delicacy. “When I serve the salmon for any of my catered events, everyone wants to order one to take home,” admitted the chef. The top bidder for Melnyczuk’s Pig Roast Party, auctioned off at the end of the dinner, purchased the chance to sample the salmon along with many more of the “Pit Master’s” tasteful treats.
Guests stopped at other hors d’oeuvre stations to sample smoked turkey, strawberry and Oaxaca cheese lavash, Gorgonzola, artichoke-dill half moons, spaghetti squash cigars, Asian dumplings, cream poached yuba (dry bean curd) topped with uni (Japanese sea urchin roe) caviar and shallot crisps, wine sorbet, classic foie gras, and assorted domestic and imported cheeses.
Other hors d’oeuvres included carrot cornucopia, Asian noodles topped with carrot slaw, chevre phyllo cup and apricot rum triple cream rosettes. The Asian influence was everywhere this year, and tiny samples of poached lamb loin, Kobe beef crudo, and veal carpaccio were toothsome presentations for meat lovers.
During the hors d’oeuvre passing, diners were a little confused to see Cesta milling about. What’s more, he was wearing a tuxedo, an odd choice for someone who should be in the kitchen. The mystery was solved when tuxedo-clad Cesta admitted that he was Chris’ identical twin brother, Joe. Chris was dutifully cooking away in the kitchen.
At 5:30 p.m., guests headed to assigned tables where wine glasses filled with Dr. Frank Brut Champagne, Geyser Peak Chardonnay, Gary Farrell Russian River Pinot Noir and Kunde Cabernet Sauvignon, were lined up in front of each place setting to be tasted as each course was served, then refilled, as desired.
The parade of courses proceeded on lustrous white china, with portions sized just large enough for three or four bites, centered on each plate. It all began with a blend of wild mushroom ravioli on sweetbreads with apple-walnut demi-glace, conceived by a trio of chefs from the Turning Stone Resort and Casino.
Next came shrimp stuffed with fruits of the sea, prepared by Inn Between chefs Randall Colman and Derrick Becker. Mollinger’s lamb tagine with couscous and red pepper coulis preceded pistachio-crusted Honolulu fresh catch, with gingered Asian slaw, miso broth and wonton brittle, a melange of complex flavors and textures produced by the Sysco Syracuse culinary team.
An intermezzo palate-cleanser of roasted beet sorbet, nested atop chrysanthemum micro greens, local goat cheese and truffle vinaigrette, followed. It was conceived by Doug Walters, executive chef of the Copper Turret in Morrisville. Cutting Edge Catering’s Paul Midgley, chef de cuisine for the evening, did double duty by creating smoked veal loin with maple syrup, horseradish thyme sauce, wild rice tamale, sauteed kale and carrots.
Back to the beginning of dinner. As soon as guests were comfortably assembled at their designated tables, American Red Cross Regional CEO Marci Henderson offered thanks with a champagne toast, congratulating event co-chairs Kimberly and Charles Boynton and Maureen and John Tracy, along with their able staff.
Dick Scolaro then came to the stage. Scolaro was the brainchild for initiating the Great Chefs Dinner, along with Charlene Smith, and it was fitting that he was named honorary chairman for the 25th anniversary event. Scolaro reminisced on the early years of the fund-raiser with humor and nostalgia. “Syracuse has always been a meat-and-potatoes town, but there were so many talented chefs here who never got a chance to show what they could do, so we came up with the idea of the Great Chefs Dinner,” recalled Scolaro. Since he was president of the local chapter of the American Red Cross at the time, devising the dinner as a fund-raiser for the Red Cross was a perfect fit.
Along with the gourmet dinner by local chefs, master chef Jacques Pepin was also engaged to do a cooking demonstration the first year, and Barbara Kafka, another famous chef of that period, was scheduled for the year following. Kafka’s cooking demo was slated for 10 a.m. but her flight was delayed in New York City. “Kafka asked if the class could be moved to 4 p.m., and she drove all the way to honor her commitment,” Scolaro remembered.
Etienne Merle, who was affiliated with Pascale’s when it was on Hawley Avenue, also created a complex hors d’oeuvre presentation, which featured a chessboard with each square filled with meticulously crafted edibles. The event took place in August, and the chessboard tray was set outside. The hot sun shone down on the tray and totally melted the design into a sticky blob, proving that you don’t fool with Mother Nature.
Dessert, presented on narrow, horizontal plates, was a tempting, rich-tasting display of Bailey’s Bavarian Napoleon, tiramisu, mocha chocolate cup and truffles, created by Kathryn Garofalo, pastry chef at L’Adour. Coffee accompanied the desserts.
Cameras were set up in the spacious kitchen for viewing from various television monitors in the dining room, so that guests could have an ongoing glimpse of the orderly activity. Each course was skillfully served by a professional waitstaff team overseen by maitre d’ Torrey Grant, of Grant Hospitality and Wine Consulting. Mary Kiernan, a food and beverage instructor in Syracuse University’s School of Hospitality Management, in the College of Human Ecology.
Since this was an extravaganza of viands of the highest order, after all, guests were also invited to bid on an array of donated food items as part of the silent auction, displayed along the outer lobby. Winning bidders could take home trays of cookies, sauces, beverages, plus certificates for restaurants and hotel stays. Tickets for local stage productions, beauty treatments, artwork, jewelry and sports items, plus furniture, clothing or even a morning with Ted & Amy on WNTQ-FM 93.1.
A popular auction item was for a window cleaning donated by Awesome Home Services, which may be an indication that we are all focusing on the practical during the current economic downturn. The number of reservations for this year’s event was also reflected in today’s monetary squeeze.
“We had a total of 190 attendees, down from 250 in past years,” noted Amanda Ramsing, public support associate for the American Red Cross. Ramsing added that a number of corporate sponsors were unable to commit this time around.
However, two donated events, courtesy of the ACF Syracuse Chapter, added to the kitty. Melnychuk’s Pig Roast Party brought in $3,500 and the Mini Great Chefs Dinner Package, wherein ACF chefs prepare a gourmet feast in the winner’s home, garnered the top bid of $4,000. As a result, the amount raised from the entire event totaled $80,000.
A procession of all chefs emerged from the kitchen to take their well-earned applause for an evening of spectacular cuisine, with extra thanks to chef adviser Brian Shore for his continued involvement in the ACF. This is Shore’s 20th Great Chefs Dinner, serving nine times as its executive chef. Scheduled to end at 9 p.m., festivities were over by 8:30, a record for the event. “We tightened things down a lot,” explained Grant.