Mild controversy accompanied Chefs' Night Out this year, because not very many people were invited.
The annual pre-Beard Awards event, thrown by Bon Appétit magazine, is traditionally the big blowout to welcome chefs from out of town. Generally it's at a large, new restaurant, giving chefs and food media a chance to check out the place. Last year it was at Ono, in the Meatpacking District. Last night it was at Chinatown Brasserie, which hasn't even opened yet, and won't for another four to five weeks, according to Ed Schoenfeld, a consultant for the restaurant, who created the culinary program there, finding the chefs and so on.
Someone from Bon Appétit called me last Monday to ask if I'd received my invitation. I had not.
Her response, paraphrased: Yeah, we cut way back this year because we want it to be more intimate. But we meant to invite you; I'll messenger a ticket over right away. You'll be writing something about it, right?
Wow, such a hard-sell for a party, I thought.
"I'll bring a camera," I said, among other things.
She had asked me to come early so I could take pictures of lots of chefs, which I did: What else was I going to be doing on Sunday at 9:30 p.m., when the party started?
I had forgotten that chefs were unlikely to show up in significant numbers until after 11, but my early arrival gave me time to sample all of the hors d'oeuvres that were being passed and catch up with some other non-chefs. I had a brief chat with Gael Greene, and another one with Ed Schoenfeld. And I got to know some consultants and whatnot.
"How did you get in?" I asked a few people who would know I was joking, as well as a wine writer who had expressed surprise a couple of weeks earlier that she hadn't been invited. She said she got a phone call on Monday, too.
An insider gave me the scuttlebutt: Bon Appétit had planned on having the party at one of Stephen Starr's new restaurants, Morimoto or Buddakan, but he wanted something like $100,000 to do it. So they went with Plan B: a smaller space, a smaller guest list.
The result was a good party, but not the sort of see-everyone-and-catch-up/aren't-we-cool-for-being-here? type of event it usually is. Then again, it wasn't really like that last year, either: It was too crowded, too dark, and with too many people I didn't really feel like meeting. So maybe a shake-up of sorts was in order.
This year's party had fewer chefs, seemingly as many publicists, and about the same ratio of people I didn't feel like meeting. But I had good bonding time with Ian Chalermkittichai from Kittichai, and with John Mooney, who, with Michel Nischan, is involved with organic-oriented restaurants with the Taj group in India. They have an organic farm outside of Bangalore.
Cesare Casella of Maremma updated me on his plans, and so did Lonesome Dove chef Tim Love, from Fort Worth.
I met Chinatown Brasserie's chef, Tyson Wong Ophaso. He's from Thailand, so we talked in Thai about his plans. It was good practice for me. I don't get to speak Thai very often, except when I'm ordering food in Thai restaurants, and that's not very hard.
Other big chefs were there, too, including Gary Danko, who's eponymous restaurant in San Francisco is being inducted into the Nation's Restaurant News Fine Dining Hall of Fame in a couple of weeks. From New York were Anita Lo from Annisa; Spice Market pastry chef Pichet Ong; the very tall Paul Liebrandt of Gilt (and his sommelier Jason Ferris, who said that they do, in fact, sell quite a few Château d'Yquem flights); Dan Barber from Blue Hill; Aaron Sanchez from Paladar; Wylie Dufresne from WD-50; Daniel Boulud of Daniel, Café Boulud and db Bistro Moderne, Patricia Yeo from Sapa (a knit cap pulled almost to eye-level; she gave no response when I asked why she was trying to be incognito), and Michael Laiskonis, pastry chef at Le Bernardin. Don Yamauchi from Tribute in Farmington Hills, Mich., was there, too. So was Lee Hefter of Spago Beverly Hills (who, with his wife Sharon was hanging out with Koi New York maitre d' Stephanie Chang and Nick Fielding, the future general manager of Table 8 in South Beach who insisted on dancing with me). Spago Pastry chef Sherry Yard was there, too.
Chicago chef Shawn McClain from Spring and Green Zebra seemed to be enjoying himself. Thierry Rautureau of Rover's in Seattle — who has dubbed himself the "Chef in the Hat" — was palling around with beret bedecked Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez of The Harvest Vine, also in Seattle. John Besh from August, in New Orleans, was looking well. He said the restaurant had closed for a month after Katrina, but was up and running again.
A number of attendees had the impressive skill of being voice-slurringly drunk and maintaining that level of drunkenness for several hours without falling down.
That's not easy to do.