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Meals With a Message

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 21, 2009; Page F01

Atlanta chef Scott Peacock was busy preparing a traditional Southern dinner for 40 on Sunday afternoon. He had worked lard into flour for his famous ham biscuits. A giant pot of smoked pork stock was simmering to braise collard greens.

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Then his cellphone rang. The Saudi Arabian ambassador and several Jews who keep kosher would be coming to the benefit dinner he was serving the next night at a private home in Northwest Washington. Their religions prohibit pork, which figured into nearly every one of his dishes.

Peacock sighed and turned to the kitchen TV, where Barack Obama was speaking after the inaugural concert: "In these monuments are chiseled those unlikely stories that affirm our unyielding faith, a faith that anything is possible."

"I just hope that this dinner will be possible," Peacock quipped. Then he got back to work.

The dinners that Peacock and 11 others from around the country volunteered to cook on Monday night were expected to raise $100,000 for local groups D.C. Central Kitchen, Martha's Table and FreshFarm Markets. But they were also expressly political. The guest list included artist Maya Lin and writers Christopher Buckley and Samantha Power as well as Steven Chu, Obama's nominee for secretary of energy, and Al Franken, who hopes soon to take a seat as a senator from Minnesota.

"We wanted to put people out there who can lead a conversation or participate in one," said Chez Panisse chef and event organizer Alice Waters. "We want to make a connection between real food and what it brings to the table."

To make that connection, Waters had envisioned small dinners of no more than 25 people and simple, homey menus -- not "restaurant food" -- made from local meat and produce. But after the $500-a-plate dinners quickly sold out, the guest lists were expanded, and it was a herculean effort to find hosts, plan menus, source local products and secure volunteer staffs in just four weeks. "This is what we call sustainability in a hurry," said Ann Yonkers, co-founder of FreshFarm Markets.

Finding the chefs was easy. Waters, whom chef José Andrés likes to call the pope of local food, simply ran through her Rolodex. Only two chefs said no, and that was because they were out of the country, Waters said. She quickly secured chefs, including Chicago's Rick Bayless (who owns Topolobampo, one of the Obamas' favorites); New York's Dan Barber, Lidia Bastianich and Daniel Boulud; "Top Chef" co-host Tom Colicchio; Washington's Andrés; and local cookbook author Joan Nathan. Waters herself cooked the largest dinner, for 200 at the Phillips Collection.

It was harder to help out-of-town chefs plan farmers market dinners in advance; the idea behind seasonal cooking is to cook with only what is available. Several chefs, including Barber, Colicchio and Nancy Silverton of Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles, chose to ship meat and produce from their home towns, according to FreshFarm's Yonkers. The rest received a list of the products the FreshFarm staff expected would be available at the market. Whole Foods Market agreed to donate pantry items and other ingredients the chefs requested.

Yonkers asked that chefs plan their menus and order the food by Jan. 9. But final orders arrived Friday, three days before the dinners. Thanks to two recent frosts, some produce, such as turnip greens, chicory and frisee lettuces, was not available, after all.

On the upside, the mishaps did give several chefs an opportunity to explore the Dupont Circle farmers market -- and gave shoppers there the chance to spot some of their favorite celebrities. Waters was impressed by the local apples. Bastianich sang the praises of the sunchokes and celery root. "This is the reality of cooking," said Peacock as he loaded a box full of collard greens. "It's about doing the best with what you can get that day." (In the case of his guests who don't eat pork, Peacock agreed to have the host provide alternate meals.)

The importance of eating healthful, seasonal food is the main message the chefs want to promote. Though Waters has long preached sustainability, only in the past several years have many chefs decided it's no longer enough to serve sustainable food to their paying customers. Instead, they see their role as activists and educators. Barber, for example, not only operates a farm and cooks but occasionally contributes opinion pieces to the New York Times. Dozens of high-profile chefs signed a petition that suggested six progressive candidates for secretary of agriculture.

With politics, however, comes disagreement. Although most were thrilled that Obama's inauguration had attracted a roster of food luminaries, there was some quiet grumbling that many Washington names such as Citronelle's Michel Richard and Palena's Frank Ruta (who used to work at the White House) were not taking part.

"I think it could have been handled so well, in a way that gave [out-of-area chefs] prominence and still treated Washington with dignity," said local baker and consultant Mark Furstenberg. "It is wonderful that Rick Bayless is here, and he could have been teamed with José Andrés to do a dinner. Lidia [Bastianich], whom I love, could have been teamed with Roberto Donna or Peter Pastan, Daniel [Boulud] with Michel Richard. It seems such a shame to have passed over the Washington food community."

Organizers say no slight was intended. The dinners were meant to represent chefs from around the country, and many Washington chefs had their hands full over inauguration weekend.

Despite the complaints, there was much excitement and hope that the events can launch a national discussion about food. A welcome party for the chefs at author Nathan's Chevy Chase home was jubilant in mood, although there was a scare when Nathan started to choke on a piece of chicken and Colicchio performed the Heimlich maneuver.

Earlier, Waters spoke to the crowd about her hopes beyond the inauguration. "Maybe we need to organize a permanent farmers market in Washington," she said. "A place where fresh food is always available."

The idea drew cheers.


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