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Culinary Clockwork Keeps James Beard Gourmet Luncheon Ticking

Writer dons her chef apron to learn what it takes to put on kick-off event to Palm Desert Food + Wine Festival

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I kept asking myself all of these questions.

Where were the spoons to portion the pea puree? Where was the second pan of puree? Could I oversee some of the volunteer culinary students from Rancho Mirage and La Quinta high schools in plating the dish for 250 guests?

The questions running through my head formed a rhythm of sorts, keeping time to the symphony of culinary activity swirling around me after I volunteered to assist in the kitchen at the Palm Desert Food & Wine Festival James Beard Gourmet Luncheon on April 8.

The invitation came from Chef Scott Robertson of New Leaf Catering, who has overseen the celebrated four-course luncheon featuring high-profile chefs like 2016's Cat Cora, Gale Gand, Suzanne Tracht, and Valerie Gordon, since its inception six years ago. This means coordinating visiting top chefs, food preparation, presentation, and service to the 250 guests in attendance.

The luncheon set-up in the main tent awaits the bevy of delightful culinary talent and featured courses.

I reported as instructed by Chef Scott, “ready to rock and roll,” donning my chef coat, apron, and serviceable heavy work shoes as I entered the culinary tent. There was no training, no time to think, and no time to lose. I was swept into the bustling team of chefs and volunteers and put on duty unloading food supplies from the catering van before seasoning 250 wild salmon filets for Chef Cora’s entrée course.

The staging and plating area is where all the magic happens as the team of chef and culinary student volunteers work as a team to send out four, top-notch courses to 250 guests.

As I found my way around the pop-up kitchen and food staging area, I was struck by the enormity of the task. I arrived at 10 a.m. and the first course was to be prepped, plated and served in less than two hours, with three courses to follow in perfect timing over the span of the two hour luncheon.

First to go out was Suzanne Tracht’s featured course of English Pea Puree with Spring Radish, Humbolt Fog & Crostini. As soon as the final drizzle of vinaigrette was poured on the beautifully composed bowls, they were sent streaming to the luncheon guests. I yearned to know how things were going in the main tent. Was Chef Tracht pleased with the final product? I had no way of knowing because I was on to my first shift of what I later jokingly referred to as my role of “Queen of Herbs.”

I prepped fragrantly fresh mint leaves, plucking them gently from their stems to keep them intact for presentation in two more courses to come. I was then pulled in urgently to take on “dill duty,” after instruction on the plating for our next course being presented by Chef Gordon – Spring Salad of Little Gems, Radicchio, Pickled Asparagus, Lemon Confit & Avocado in a Green Garlic Crème Fraiche Vinaigrette.

Chef Valerie Gordon oversaw the preparation and plating of her featured course. She is the real “dill.”

As I began plucking dill fronds, Chef Gordon magically appeared to oversee how preparations were coming along and I was instructed to leave the fronds larger and more intact. My Herb Queen title was momentarily in jeopardy, but I quickly regained my composure to assist the culinary students and volunteers in setting-out bowls in the staging area for plating.

We each took on roles of tossing greens, adding asparagus sections, and finishing with fresh herbs. Meanwhile, we had enjoyed a rain shower of decent proportion and had to re-arrange the outdoor area surrounding our tent and make sure supplies were staying water-safe.

Working with culinary program students from Rancho Mirage and La Quinta high schools was a highlight of my experience.

Putting on an event of this scale requires doing whatever is necessary and adjusting to what the conditions allow. Between supporting talented chefs, working in a “pop-up” kitchen, and coordinating with a team of local culinary staff and student volunteers, every hand is kept busy and multi-tasking is key.

Our team wiped off surfaces dampened by the rain and plating began for Chef Cora’s featured course – Salmon with Satsuma-Haban Glaze and Meyer Lemon Cous Cous.

Dessert would follow quickly so as soon as the salmon was perfectly plated, I joined with a culinary student for mint chiffonade duty. We stacked, we rolled, we chopped, we conquered.

Chef Scott Roberston of New Leaf Catering mastered the culinary chaos by ensuring the volunteer team was a well-oiled machine.

Chef Gand came back to instruct on plating for her dessert course — Almond Tea Cake with Pink Grapefruit Crème Legere, Lychee and Rose Petals. The students from both local high school culinary programs were incredible to work with as we unpacked candied rose petals from packaging that contained ample cushioning to protect the delicate, sugary, petals inside.

The delicate rounds of sponge cake had been cut and placed next to decadent creamy swirls of grapefruit-flavored cream. Mint was sprinkled oh-so artistically over the cream and each plate was decorated with a soft, exotic lychee, candied rose petals and a small stud of vibrant, candied fruit. Then, the final touch, and one I told Chef Gale that I would be stealing for a future sweet creation (she gave me her permission), a few drops of grapefruit bitters.

Finishing final plating of the featured dessert course by Chef Gale Gand.

As the final dessert plates came back clear, the “foodie-roadies” team grabbed bowls, plates, plastic cutlery and enjoyed the remnants of the fruits, veggies and fish of our labors. It was exhilarating, and a bit unbelievable that this team of professionals and volunteers from widely varying backgrounds had come together to accomplish something so grand.

Cheers to launching the Palm Desert Food & Wine Festival of 2016 in true style!

Lori Cohen-Sanford is a private/personal chef, cooking class instructor and owner of Nourishfoods Organic Meal Services — www.nourishfoods.biz. Tastes Around Town will appear weekly. Follow her on Twitter @nourishfoodsps.

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