C&C: a party that pleases the palate

07/29/2010 12:00 AM |

Chefs and Champagne, the James Beard Society’s annual tasting party, fundraiser and pleasure-fest, celebrated the East End’s summer bounty in a bucolic setting at Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack on Saturday, July 24.

This is my favorite splashy summer gala, not only because I love Champagne, but also because the most gonzo New York chefs are there. Sharing James Beard’s legacy and mission, “to celebrate, nurture, and preserve America’s diverse culinary heritage and future,” many have worked in each others’ kitchens and enjoy this evening under a big tent in a vineyard, competing to show off their culinary skills.

Unlike the typical summer benefit where soggy canapàs and cubed cheeses prevail, Chefs and Champagne featured such delicacies as Ditch Plains Miniature Lobster Rolls (Marc Murphy), Montauk Scallop and Cherry Chopped Salad (Michel Nischan), Watermelon and Whipped Flan Parfait (Heather Carlucci-Rodriguez) and Pastrami Spice-Rubbed Kobe Steak With Lobster-Corn Butter (Todd English).

I also enjoyed Mark Gerlach’s splendid Stracchino and Local Blackberry Cheesecake, then had a luscious slurp of Jesse Shenker’s Oysters in Gelà e with Heirloom Tomatoes and Basil Seeds. Many of the ingredients in these dishes were grown locally, on both the North and South forks. In fact, being so close to the agricultural source for many dishes was a prime motivation for the chefs to bring their skills to this East End event.

At C&C, beverage selection is just as enticing and challenging as knowing what foods to try — and when to stop sampling — at this feast. I tasted a selection of wines from the venerable Champagne houses of Nicolas Feuillate and Lanson (a particular favorite), as well as Champagne from La Caravelle, a brand created by the Jammet family, noted restaurateurs and, incidentally, cousins of Paumanok Vineyards owner Charles Massoud. While I usually taste the nonvintage selections before the rosà or vintage Champagnes, at this event I knew to get there at the beginning and, first, before the supply runs out, try the fanciest wines, which would disappear quickly down the gullets of this connoisseur crowd.

I also tasted a fine selection of Wölffer Estate’s wines, though I bypassed the beer, the vodka and the Coca-Cola. Sorry, guys, I’m a wine drinker.

This year’s honoree at C&C was Martha Stewart, a culinary star and lifestyle guru whose own influence is far greater than James Beard’s ever was. Martha began the catering business that jump-started her career in Westport, Conn., but she has been a part-time East End resident for decades. On her television show and in her magazine she has featured the locally beloved barbecue put on annually by Cut¬­chogue Fire Department and chef-farmer Eberhard Muller’s homegrown cuisine. Earlier this summer she was spotted back in Cut¬­chogue, visiting the Charolais beef cattle and enjoying the wines at McCall Vineyard.

I was first aware of Martha Stewart in the early ’80s, when I attended a Manhattan benefit party catered by her company. Unlike other caterers of the time whose decorations were seldom more adventurous than copycat vases of daisies, chrysanthemums and babies’ breath, Martha created vast arrays of fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers, mixing the common with the exotic in an extravagance of color. If her palette eventually toned down to moss green, beige and robin’s egg blue, her effect on American taste remained as vibrant as those colors, even as she survived her temporary fall from grace.

Martha herself was the only guest who appeared to beat the 90-degree heat inside the tent, looking trîs soignà e in a black linen tunic and Pucci leggings. Although others’ glamorous outfits were wilted at this year’s C&C, there was plenty of good celebrity watching. It was fun to see the rich, famous, thin and thick, swishing into the crowded tent with their entourages, air kissing as they looked over each others’ shoulders, declaring, “Sweetheart! You must try the beets!”

C&C’s silent and live auction items also grabbed my attention. I wanted to win the All Clad induction cooker, or the getaway to Mexico’s deluxe Royal Hideaway Playacar, on the Riviera Maya. Two nights at Miami’s Fountainbleau Hotel, with dinner at Hakkasan, were tempting, but not as tempting as four tickets to Martha Stewart’s TV show, followed by lunch with Martha herself. It would have been a Good Thing, only someone outbid me. I settled happily for a goody bag — best swag on the East End!

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.