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The Alliance Française de Chicago seeks to promote French-American cultural exchange, and the preparations for this year's gala, held Friday at the Civic Opera House, represented a microcosm of that mission. Lili Gaubin, the gala's chair, who has been planning the event for the past two years (with the help of the organization's woman's board and gala development manager Jessica Brawn), offered airfare, accommodations, and a per diem to the chefs, florist, and head bartender of the Ritz Paris (where she is a frequent guest) if they would come to Chicago to work on the gala, which raises funds for the alliance's outreach program with local public schools.
“We joined forces,” she said. “They donated their services to our fund-raiser; we gave them visibility and the privilege of partnering with an event that is special.” Large-scale fund-raisers are rare in France (where the government subsidizes many of the causes that Americans hold benefits for), so the gala's execution took collaboration between Parisians and local vendors.
The evening's meal, which featured six courses of red-tinted food (the meal started with lobster marinated with aromatics and raspberry parfum and ended with peach melba and hibiscus), was a year in the planning. The process started when chefs from the Ecole Ritz Escoffier (the cooking school at the Ritz Paris) flew in to consult with chefs from Calihan Catering.
After that, “there was a lot of back and forth” and unique challenges, said Calihan's Cate Kaczala. “The chefs would send in lists of ingredients that they needed, but they work on the metric system, so we had to translate those to American standards.” Once they had figured out measurements, Kaczala and her team special ordered everything from white peaches (for the dessert) to a particular type of French flour, which they located in a Milwaukee bakery. Bartender Colin Field, who heads the Ritz Paris's Bar Hemingway, also sent in his requests (including ice cubes of a specific size) for the specialty cocktails he'd be shaking up on site.
On the Monday before the event, the pastry chef, executive chef, and manager from the Ritz Paris arrived in Chicago, taking up residence in the Calihan kitchen to begin their preparations. On the day of the gala, Kaczala said, the Calihan team and the Ritz team had to compromise their respective work speeds, combining the American “productive pace” with the Parisian “perfectionist pace,” Kaczala said. “We had to assure them that they would be able to fine-tune everything once we actually got [the food] out of the door.”
A similar partnership took place between Ritz floral designer Djordje Varda and the design team at Heffernan Morgan. After a brief trip to Chicago a month before the event, Varda decided that he would work on getting the red peonies, sweet peas, and orchids (which he sourced from Holland and the South of France) for the evening, while Heffernan Morgan's John Hensel agreed to find the tall, slender glass tubes that fit with Varda's signature aesthetic. “I like flowers to appear to float in the body of the vase; I don't like to use containers in the traditional way,” Varda said at the event.
Heffernan Morgan has worked on many events at the opera house, while Varda is used to designing for the guest rooms and lobby at the Ritz Paris. So on the day of the gala, Hensel and his team arrived hours before the guests to install Varda's arrangements at each dinner table (there were 54 total) and in the opera house's upper- and lower-level lobbies. “We had a real familiarity with the space that let us act as facilitators, and I think Djordje appreciated how quickly we were able to work,” Hensel said.