Story by Kristen Schmidt
The pitch was tempting: Merry prankster chef — tattooed, dreadlocked and better known for writing a book about his personal demons than for helming a kitchen for any length of time — goes on the food equivalent of a rock band’s van tour of the Midwest. At various stops, he, a few fellow travelers and some hometown chefs will get together and cook a spontaneous, multi-course dinner for local foodies. Exotic ingredients. No rules. Flowing drinks. What could go wrong?
These dinners, promoted as crucibles of good cooking juju, seem to pop up constantly in Columbus. A local brewery pairs up with a chef for one night only. Or several local chefs get together for a one-time collaborative effort benefiting a good cause. Rarely does the dinner live up to overinflated expectations, but then, rarely does one flame out as disastrously as the Crux Tour dinner, with chef Brandon Baltzley at the helm, did on Sept. 15. (Tour organizer and food writer Sarah Freeman lamented the evening in her chronicle of the tour, which includes some not-so-subtle Columbus shade.)
Like the other diners that night, I’d been drawn in by Baltzley, as well as the participation of Avishar Barua (Service Bar, Veritas Tavern) and Sangeeta Lakhani (The Table). The first sign something was amiss came via email a day before the event. The start time had changed, and there would be just one seating instead of two. The day of the dinner, we got another time change and a note saying gratuity for servers hadn’t been included in our ticket price. “We promise you will be rewarded with an unforgettable evening,” the note chirped. The evening of the dinner started in good company, with great cocktails and appetizers at Middle West Spirits’ newly expanded distillery. We trotted across Fifth Avenue to The Table for the meal itself which, we were chagrined to discover, didn’t include drink pairings. That at least led to a spirited discussion of ticketed dinners that come with a host of upcharges (see: Grant Achatz’s Next).
Dinner itself was a series of disappointments, all served no warmer than room temperature. A soup course was grainy and sour. Barua’s veal breast and charred broccoli were flavorful, but the dish would have been so much more enjoyable served warm. A course anchored by a slice of pork dubbed “coppa” was served with a sauce made with blood — just the kind of intriguing and daring move you expect at these collaboration dinners. The sauce was pretty tasty, but our server couldn’t give us any details about the preparation, probably because the chefs and servers didn’t have much chance to discuss the evening’s offerings. Dessert was a bewildering plate of potato, melon and fresh cheese. We ordered pizza from Adriatico’s on the way to a friend’s house after dinner.
To their credit and as proof of their professionalism, local participants Middle West and The Table sent an email to Crux Tour diners a few days after the event, admitting it hadn’t lived up to expectations and inviting diners back to the distillery and The Table with the promise of $20 gift cards toward other, better experiences. “While we were thrilled to showcase the culinary talents of the attending chefs,” the note from Middle West’s Brady Konya and The Table’s Lakhani read, “we also recognize that the new format may have resulted in an experience that did meet the level of service we expect at our partner events.”
These one-off dinners are high risk — this dinner was $85 per person before drinks and gratuity — but rarely yield a high reward. You might walk away with one or two memorable courses rattling around on your palate, but lesser courses get lost in the shuffle. There’s no way to know if that collaboration dinner tempting you on Facebook or at a favorite restaurant is going to be a winner. But I can offer a few pieces of advice, gleaned from years of attending these.
If it’s a chef or restaurant or organization you trust and have had good experiences with, it’s probably a good bet.
What are the ticket details?
Have the organizers detailed what you get for the cost of your ticket? Do they specifically mention gratuity for the servers? These are the people most likely to get screwed at one of these events, particularly if organizers have not clearly communicated to diners how to take care of waitstaff.
Who’s cooking and making drinks?
Take some time to get to know the chefs and bartenders who will be at the event. Where are their restaurants, and how are they regarded by local diners? Does their cooking style seem to mesh with what you like or what you’d like to explore?
Is there a unifying theme?
This isn’t essential, but a theme — any theme — is an indication that organizers have done some thinking about how to make the dinner a coherent experience. Maybe dinner is a celebration of all things pork or of a particular season. A unifying idea tends to make these one-off dinners work well.
What’s it worth to you?
Can you spend $75 on a dinner and have realistic expectations about what you’ll receive in return? Or would you rather spend that $75 on a sure thing — a meal on a menu in a restaurant you trust, where you know the chef has vetted every detail?
One That Works
For the last two years, the James Beard Foundation has hosted a Celebrity Chef Tour dinner at Gallerie, drawing respected names like Jonathon Sawyer (Greenhouse Tavern, Trentina), Paul Virant (Vie, Perennial Virant) and Anne Kearney (Rue Dumaine) and anchored by chef Bill Glover of Gallerie. The dinner has a big price tag, but it’s basically a sure thing run by chefs who have lots of experience with these kinds of events. It’s also a well-oiled machine — service is reliably good, and so are the wine pairings. Let’s hope it returns for a third year, in spring 2017.