Heat, Meat, Sweet & Eat: The Great Chefs of LA 2009

Written with the assistance of LAist's Entertainment Editor Elise Thompson

Last Sunday the backlot of CBS Radford Studios in Studio City was filled with some of the biggest names...in food. The 23rd Annual Great Chefs of LA was indeed the promised food and drink filled afternoon of music, swag bags, and auctions, all to benefit the National Kidney Foundation of Southern California. Hosted by comedian and TV star George Lopez, the event drew some celebs (so we hear!) from entertainment and lots of food talent (so we ate!).

The Chefs of Honor Neal Fraser (LAist Interview) and Mary Sue Milliken (LAist Interview: Border Grill Truck) kept their fellow chefs in check and the auction dollars coming in during brief appearances on stage in the midst of all the feeding frenzy. Actually, it wasn't a frenzied event, but once again, like at great food events gone before (LA Mag, AWFF, and last year's GCLA) the battle is always between your eyes and your stomach. LAist took a divide and conquer strategy so that we could cover the bases with our appetites and cameras.

Our unseasonably hot weather last weekend (c'mon, yes, it's sunny SoCal, but tank tops in November is a bit much, no, Mother Nature?) meant that seasonality itself was something to contend with. Fall is the time for hearty comfort fare, as the harvest's bounty is in and most people are keeping warm on the shortened days with meat and starch dishes rich in autumn hues and tastes. This explains the tables laden with bites of braised meats, like Akasha's sumptuous short rib piled atop a salty-sweet slab of pretzel bread served alongside pantry fodder like pickles and preserves. Down the way were eager ladle-fulls of gooey 3-cheese macaroni and more tender short rib meat from Charlie's Malibu--how can you resist?

At a certain point resistance becomes futile. Small plate after small plate of delicious offerings using the best of the season were being doled out table to table. Once again the grass-fed beef sandwiches from Dakota were a hit, and Michael Fiorelli of mar'sel assembled the most gorgeous bite of braised Wagyu beef cheek with adorable--and delicious--baby root veggies (along with a forgettable pasta; grain-schmain, let's focus!). Those who sampled Fuego's Chipotle-agave lamb loin served with jalapeño-mint organic grits were enraptured, hailing it the perfect autumn dish with just enough spice to make it exciting, but not overwhelming.

Other meat-intensive bites came courtesy of Saddlepeak Lodge, who provided us with a first-time-ever taste: Antelope! Surprisingly mild and not at all "gamey," the dish was a grilled Nilgail antelope with cabbage, bacon, apple, and black garlic--a very savory and complex dish. Honored Chef Fraser of Grace and BLD also had meat on his table with his melt-in-your mouth veal on creamy polenta. The meat had been cooked in a sauce flavored with chestnut, which brought a surprising almost Asian-style note to the dish. The other Honored Chef, Mary Sue Milliken of Border Grill and Ciudad brought her meal on 4 wheels in the form of the Border Grill Truck--but you know already we love their ceviche and tacos!

Meanwhile, across the way, sips of seasonal soups like mushroom (okay, fine, Zuppa di Funghi) from Tanino Drago of Tanino & Panzanella Ristorantes and squash from Drago were welcoming flavors. Chef Celestino Drago (LAist Interview) was on hand to dish and dish out; in addition to the soup he offered a rich duck sandwich, which made for a playfully indulgent moment. Just down the way were the folks from Bottega Louie, who also went the sandwich route, pairing tangy-sweet Blood Orange marmalade panini with a sensuous, quivering dollop of fresh burrata with an earthy pesto.

Oh, but we were sweating like the chefs and staff had surely sweat pots of onions to go into their creations. And so we found unexpected refuge in the crisper, lighter offerings. Serving as delectable relief was the wise--and seasonal--choice of Chef Ben Ford of Ford's Filling Station (LAist Interview), who shopped the market sensibly and had a visually stunning and refreshing plate of salad mingled with the cheery orange of sliced persimmons. Okay, and he was super charming and fun to watch work, what can we say?

La Loggia and Bokado had several enticing bites to help tame the heft of the heartier fare, too. Among them was a dish of Langostinos wrapped kataife which was unbelievably delicious thanks to the crispy wrap reminiscent of shredded wheat cereal, which contrasted with the langostino's somewhat unusual texture. Chef Frank Leon also offered up some slammin' Pintxo de Pollo, which were marvelously intense with Indian and middle eastern-flavored spices (though the word pitxo and pinxo are skewered basque tapas). These skewers had moist meat, and a handy dandy bread carry-all to boot: Win! The heat of the day and the Pinxto could be cured with a sip of their Gazpacho Andaluz, too.

But when it came to refreshing tastes, an unexpected crowd pleaser were the two oceanic bites courtesy of East. First, a plump scallop served sushi-style with lemongrass sambal, wasabi creme fraiche, shiso dust and micro cilantro in its own charming purple half-shell, was a tangy, smooth, vibrant respite. This was followed by a small piece of Hawaiian Walu, served with a mildly smoky miso mustard cream, micor wasabi, chive essence, and smoked chardonnay sea salt. (Confession: At least one LAist hit that table up three times. Ahem.)

Sushi is a tricky task both on a Sunday and at an event like this. We skipped the more traditional sushi selections of SHU-Sushi House Unico, but were beckoned over by eager reps and our own curiosity to the Sushi Poppers, which--if you could imagine such a thing needing to exist--are sushi cut rolls in a cylinder with a push-pop mechanism. Though the prototypes were were tasting didn't have the full set-up installed (some sort of squirt up and in soy sauce mechanism?) we did brave the venture. The sushi itself was passable; made in partnership between man and machine they had the taste and texture of supermarket sushi tray items. But do we ever want sushi in a tube? Well...no.

We did, however, want to quench our thirst. Though wine was plentiful, as were some excellent beers, the day was a win for the non-alcoholic cold bevs, like the Jamaica and Tamarind drinks, the Izze fizzy fruity folks, and the most sought-after liquid in the joint: Water, courtesy of Smartwater. What would be smarter? More water on hand, but, uh, considering the "organic" motif of the event, were bottles really the way to go?

Under a great white tent attendees could peruse and bid on tables with fantastic silent auction items, or sit back and relax on comfy white couches and sip VeeV cocktails made by a cooler-than-cool be-sunglassed dude in the mellow shade. Other libations that were happily sipped included Tequila Ocho straight up which was very good, though a bit harsh. A more refreshing offering was the Right Gin cocktail, made with fresh orange and blood orange bitters. Of course, you could just go first class and sip on Piper-Hiedsieck champage. Why not?

If you were looking for entertainment, though, you needn't have gone further than the table of the folks from Jose Andres' The Bazaar at the SLS. What a show! They brought along the always-enchanting and increasingly popular kitchen ingredient liquid nitrogen to mix up a batch of stroooooooong as all get out caipirinhas (think boozy citrus slushy with fresh herbs and flowers). They also had Tomato-Mozarella Pipettes (the mozarella is liquid in a tube that, sorry to say, looks like a tampon and squirts out the cheese juice, so, err, ick!) and a Guacamole Cone that was pretty to look at but had a distracting tomato-y jelly texture that was confusing. Their sweets were a big zingy hit, though: Chocolate Pop Rock (bam! pow!), bonbons, and marshmallows that were divine--albeit not always in stock on the table so not everyone could try them.

The all-out curse hit Leyna's Kitchen's cupcakes; despite a back-corner location those ever-grinning baking babes ran out of their cheeky pink strawberry cupcake treats. That's okay, though--we've had them before. The POM folks had lots of pomegranate input in the eats of the day; as one of the more prevalent sponsors they threw in not only a whole, fresh pomegranate into our gift bags but also had a chocolate-pomogranate cupcake which was not too sweet although a bit too dry in texture save for the surprising gush of pomegranate-chocolate filling.

What Great Chefs of LA has going for it is the easy-going vibe, the ease of the layout, the smart variety of food and drink, the low-pressure to stop what you're doing to listen to speeches, and the value of your $150 admission getting you 3+ hours' worth of excellent food. Of course, the fact that the event is a fundraiser for the National Kidney Foundation (they raised $150k this year from Great Chefs!) means your dollars will do a lot more work for you long after you've digested the degustation of the day. But if the pricetag appears steep, when you're planning for next year, bear in mind you can probably catch a sweet deal via the good people of Goldstar, or keep an eye out for your favorite food bloggers who just might have some tickets you can enter to win. So we'll see you next year on the backlot for another day of Great Chefs of LA!