After Sundance's Screenings, They Spread the Swag With a Spatula
Sunday, January 28, 2007
PARK CITY, Utah -- It's the 8 o'clock rush hour at the Harry O's food fortress on Main Street and the guests are being hustled down the passing lanes by the gym-boy bouncers, past the ranks of publicists with their ubiquitous clipboards -- name? Name? Name? The biggies are whisked through the security tolls and the little people (making sad, hungry faces) are turned away -- step aside, step aside, and then, squeeeeze, we're in.
Tuck in, baby, it's Chefdance 2007.
Apparently, for those who are given much, more is on the menu. In the old days, it was hard to get a decent meal at the annual pop culture/corporate tie-in swag heap known as the Sundance Film Festival. Now? Food is the new edible swag. Forget those infamous (now taxable -- booo, IRS!) goodie bags from Fred Segal, still very popular but also very yawn. Today's hot giveaway comes on a platter with cave-aged Gruyère.
We do think Marie Antoinette said it best: Let them eat chocolate molten cake with hot chocolate, and apple cider-braised Kurobuta pork, and seared hamachi with spinach gomae, and chicory coffee-lacquered squab, and celery-root mouseline with black truffle fondue.
Behold! Oscar nominee Eddie Murphy filling his "Dreamgirls" pie hole. See! Cheryl Hines yumming the colossal crabcake with young papaya slaw. There! Baby Face doing the lamb rack provencal with potato dauphine avec sauce perigueux.
You've heard of food and wine pairings? It's celebrity pairings at Chefdance, where for 10 nights, a different celebrity chef lays out a four-course celebrity spread for an invitation-only seating of 250 directors, moguls, socialites, and the hosts of "Access Hollywood."
"We assemble personalities," explains Chefdance co-host Kenny Griswold, hotelier, restaurateur, club proprietor and ski resort owner, whose home in L.A. is the one that is the funhouse for the cast of the HBO series "Entourage." Kenny then begins to recite some poetry.
I look across the room and wonder why
People always fly right by
And rarely stop to slow the pace
To meet someone that's in the race . . .
After he's done, he asks: At what other dinner table would you seat Jamie Kennedy next to Timothy Hutton, "and they don't even know each other?" We confess: We do not know. (The Olive Garden?)
"Our goal, and it is a lofty goal, is to serve them the best meal of their year," Griswold says. To that end, he flies in (coach) 10 chefs -- such as Shawn McClain of Spring in Chicago, Ken Oringer of Clio in Boston, Todd Mark Miller of STK in New York -- and the foodie maestros and their sous chefs, aided by a volunteer staff of student cooks from the Art Institute culinary school in Santa Monica, whip up the vittles and the warmed plates start flying out of the kitchen, as a roving camera crew captures the hot kitchen action, which is beamed by closed-circuit to a dozen flat-screen TV panels mounted on the walls around the dining hall. Ladies and gentlemen, grab your forks.
The whole shebang is underwritten, naturally, by corporate sponsors (Golden Door spa, Citigroup, MySpace.com, etc.), which get to invite about 100 of their own special guests. The rest of the diners are the Sundance set wrangled in by Griswold and his co-host, Bethenny Frankel, celebrity chef from New York. "It's really taken off," says Frankel, who is semi-famous herself as one of the also-rans on Martha Stewart's short-lived version of "The Apprentice." John Singleton, the director of "Boyz N the Hood," "has been e-mailing me like crazy," she says.
"Some people are like, hey, isn't there a film festival going on? But a lot of people who come here come here to dine and socialize and go to the music venues and parties," she says. "Not that we're competitors to the film festival."
And yet. Robert Redford and the Sundance Film Festival organizers have had it up to here with the "ambush marketers" who piggyback on the fest (vs. paying to be official sponsors), touting their brands in the "gift retreats" that line Main Street. "Over the last seven years or so, big-ticket swag tents have morphed from amusing festival sideline to corporate Mardi Gras, threatening any impression of Park City as a movie-loving ski town," the trade Variety declared. So much so that this year, the official Sundancers had to, um, remind attendees that, you know, it's all about the indie movies, come on, isn't it? And so they handed out big campaign buttons that read: "Focus on Film."
But Tara Reid has gotta eat, right?
Back in the olden Sundance days (circa 2003), the hot tickets were for the rowdy, very drinky, very crowded, very frat-ratty after-parties. But now? Less so. For why sustain one's self upon germy commune bowls of down-market Chex Mix and 3.2-alcohol content Utah beer when one can hit the now popular, though infinitely more exclusive, after-dinners? At these, attended by filmmakers and studio suits -- alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney (from "The Savages") -- they serve the most toothsome pinot noirs and beef you can cut with a fork. We mean, if you're going to chat up Parker Posey and director Hal Hartley, (for "Fay Grim") why not do so with a serving of baby-back ribs (at Chimayo's, in their dungeon basement) arranged like some kind of volcano of meat?
Why, indeed. Chefdance, now hopping in its fourth year, was joined this festival by Bon Appétit magazine, which hosted its own four nights of its own celebrity chef dining (attended by Catherine Keener, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Hopkins, Christian Slater, Winona Ryder, etc.). "We see all the gifting suites and all-night parties and just knew there would be people who need a place to come and love the food, to have champagne and talk and eat dinner," says Bon Ap's director of public relations, Alexa Cassanos, on the night the magazine was feting Bob Shaye, head of New Line Cinema and his movie, "The Last Mimzy." "We wanted something elegant, unlike the other Sundance things."
Alas, it will inevitably get only more so at Sundance, now that food is the Next New Thing. A normal person, a film lover, party of four, without cachet who shows up at Zoom or Riverhorse at 8 p.m. without a reservation made two months ago? To the seating hostess, buddy, you're invisible.
Back at Chefdance last Sunday, chef Douglas Keane of Cyrus, from California's Sonoma wine valley, was taking it all in stride. "This whole celebrity-chef thing is amazing, and you know, kind of ridiculous. What we are, we are skilled labor," Keane said, assembling his Thai marinated lobster with avocado and hearts of palm. He'd been prepping the meal since 7 a.m.
A waiter came into the open kitchen and mentioned diners who wanted vegetarian meals. Keane thought this funny. "Well, they can pluck the lobster out of the salads," he said.
His meal, by the way, was killer, and after he was introduced and mumbled a few words, the guests gave him a round of applause. "I don't want the meal to be about me," Keane said later. "It's about them."
And true, from the kitchen, the noise in the dining room? A great braying and cutlery hitting the plates. The new soundtrack of Stuffdance.