This story first appeared in the Nov. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In an era when even casual diners have become in-the-know gourmands thanks to Top Chef and other programs, it’s harder to impress the restaurant-going public. Rare, just-for-you ingredients and special tables positioned inside the kitchen no longer are enough to satiate hard-core foodies. Lately, these jaded types have been hungering for seats at celebrity-chef collaborative dinners, which might as well be dubbed Super Friends Suppers.
These high-priced special events — for which all-star toques align for an evening, handling different courses of elaborate tasting menus — are the new hot ticket. During the summer, Wolfgang Puck teamed with Roy Choi of Kogi fame and Manhattan’s Momofuku empire builder David Chang at Hotel Bel-Air, at $190 a pop. Dishes included Santa Barbara spot prawns with sea urchin and short ribs with pickled peaches. (Jon Favreau also worked in the kitchen, doing research for his upcoming film Chef.) In October, the food world’s eminent James Beard Foundation hosted a $185-a-person affair at Union Station, led by Rick Bayless, who was joined by Michael Cimarusti (Providence), Jeremy Fox (Rustic Canyon), Karen Hatfield (Hatfield’s) and Nobu Matsuhisa — who a few days earlier had gathered 28 chefs from his globe-spanning restaurants for a feast at his new Las Vegas hotel.
Also in October, Michelin men Morihiro Onodera, formerly of Mori Sushi, and Stefano De Lorenzo recently offered a $125 Japanese-Italian 10-courser at the latter’s Westside restaurant La Botte. On Nov. 10, for $185 — not including wine — the Bocuse d’Or USA professional chefs organization, founded by Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller, is presenting a dinner at Santa Monica’s Melisse, where chef Josiah Citrin will be joined by the garlanded likes of Michael Tusk (San Francisco’s Quince), Trey Foshee (George’s at the Cove in La Jolla, Calif.), Traci Des Jardins (S.F.’s Jardiniere) and Gavin Kaysen (NYC’s Cafe Boulud).
For diners who have eaten everything, the appeal of these dinners (anyone can buy tickets) lies in the pursuit of something at once new and ineffable, served by a saucepan superband. “Now, with everyone on Instagram, Twitter and all the rest, people want memorable experiences they can capture and talk about and that aren’t likely to happen again,” says Puck.
For chefs, the allure is more varied. They are acutely aware that these events attract a deep-pocketed, super-sophisticated audience that might yield investors for their next project. (In other words, it’s a demographic very different from the typical special-splurge restaurant patron.) They also occasionally learn a fresh trick or two from talented colleagues at their level. “There’s always something: a new ingredient, an idea about running a kitchen,” says Citrin. And, in a field defined by busy evening schedules, the dinners give the chefs a good excuse to hang out together — even if it is, nominally, for work. “It’s as much a social experience for them as for the diners,” says Kris Moon of the James Beard Foundation. “We hear from chefs that they finally get to see their friends.”
These being all-star kitchens, it also is a chance for long-laureled chefs to learn how they stack up against the competition. Jokes Fox, who will collaborate again, this time with David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos, Calif., on Nov. 11 at Rustic Canyon ($95 without wine), “The motivation is really just to not embarrass yourself — not to fall on your face.”