August 27, 2012
The strongest—and most meaningful—message at last night's tribute to Julia Child on her 100th birthday at the Hyatt Carmel Highlands: She's still with us.
Yes, her image was there on the amazing sugar cellophane panes that decorated the bottom floor of the uncanny French croquembouche Eiffel tower by Gerard Bechler of Patisserie Bechler, and her memorable mannerisms appeared on the foodie TV footage with John Pisto looping behind the speakers' podium.
But that's not what close friends Gary Ibsen, David Fink or Pisto really meant as they each tried out impressions of the iconic gamechanger, shared localized stories and echoed the Julia-is-still-around.
They meant the memories, influence and inspiration are everpresent for each of them.
It was Ibsen—pictured second from right with, from left, Michel Escoffier, Daryl Griffith and Ibsen's wife Dagma—who encouraged Child, a co-founder of the American Institute of Food & Wine whose local chapter co-produced the event, to consider a Monterey chapter, now one of the biggest in the country. (Les Dames of Escoffier co-hosted.) She promptly encouraged him right back, saying, "Just go do it!"
"Her generosity for the area was immense," he said, adding he liked to bring her over to friends' houses on the Peninsula for dinner and simply say, "Can I have a friend who's in town come with me?"
When he spent days to get George and Barbara Bush to sign a letter for her 80th birthday party, she pulled him aside at the event and said, "You know I'm a Democrat. You didn't have to go through all that work."
Pisto described the way she plowed through Monterey prawns, juices and shells flying—"this woman loved to eat"—and how his best Burgundies seemed to end up on the table when she was in town.
"Julia was a member of a special type of person," he said. "She'd rather do dinners for friends, and drink wine, than go out. I always had the opportunity to taste good wines with her, if you know what I mean."
Another nugget: He remembers complaining about the price of caviar. "What do you think money is for?!" she countered immediately.
Jeremiah Tower, the same celebrity chef who pioneered California cuisine at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse—and appears above right—described a night where she drank him under the table by way of bourbons and Burgundies, demanded he meet her at 7am for breakfast, and as he barely managed to stand (and force through some vanilla yogurt), she took down four fried eggs, pancakes, bacon, orange juice and coffee. As part of another rambling story, keeping with the night's timing overall, he asked her how she'd cook a frozen goose.
"I wouldn't," she said.
Child was certainly there in the food, and not just the croquembouche masterpiece. Each of the six collaborating chefs not only drew inspiration from Child as they've built admirable careers, they nodded to her with what they prepared, turning in creative versions of French classics she brought to the masses.
Jeff Jakes, longtime local industry star and now exec chef at Silverado Resort and Spa, put together a spin on Nicoise salad with organic Julia Child heirloom tomatoes—named so by Ibsen after tasting sessions with Child—with nicely mild anchovy, exuberant caper berries, egg and olive that seemed predestined for the similarly earthy and versatile Pinot Blanc from Les Dames' own Annette Hoff of Cima Colina.
"Child brought the world a better level of cuisine," Jakes said.
Peter Armellino of Michelin-starred Plumed Horse did a sweet corn flan anointed with shaved Australian winter truffles and given a moat of steaming Maine lobster bisque at the table. With it went Plumed Horse's Tesstarossa Cuvee Chardonnay. "Nothing like hot bisque and cold Chardonnay," Armellino said.
Those lofty tastes creshendoed toward the simple stars of the night's menu, Highlands Hyatt Chef Matt Bolton's applewood-smoked duck (above)—with a headshaking, almost-foie gras-rich chanterelle puree and superb port-poached Mission fig—and former Highlands chef and now-Coastal Luxury Management exec Mark Ayers' flat-out beautiful beef bourguignon, buttressed by crispy bacon and chanterelles. Every plate at my nine-top was cleaned on both courses. (Fink shared some of his fleeting 53 cases of his estate 2009 Fink Family Pinot Noir to pair with the duck; 2006 Sheid Claret Reserve lifted the beef to even better.) Current Highlands Pastry Chef Gina Scalla closed with a plate of marcona almond, raspberry-lavendar sorbet, light lemon curd and yum honey creme fraiche that got a boost from Tudor Wines' 2011 Maestral Riesling Ice Wine.
A who's who of food types filled the tables, and included (clockwise from bottom left) Gene Burns of Dining Around radio fame, AIWF and Les Dames boardmember Helaine Tregenza, AIWF Boardmember Michael Mastrocola and his fellow tastemaking wife Bonné and Burns' longtime executive producer/new Dining host Joel Ridell.
Each of them mentioned how thick the nostalgic night with memories, and agreed with what Ibsen vocalized.
"She's still with us," he said. "She brought us together on so many occasions."
Just like last night.