By Lisa Cericola Posted April 2, 2009, 4:29 PM EDT
About 500 guests elbowed their way around City Winery at Food & Wine's annual Best New Chefs event Wednesday night. As in past years, the gathering was somewhat of a feeding frenzy, with guests queuing up for bite after artfully prepared bite from the magazine's alumni chefs. This year brought a New York-centric roster that included Michael Psilakis of Anthos, Christopher Lee of Aureole, Laurent Tourondel of the BLT empire, and Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern. Six chefs manned tasting stations designed to look like food carts, and three chefs had staffers circulate their food on catering trays.
Shanette Vega White, the magazine's promotions manager, worked with Francesca Abbracciamento of Francesca Events on logistics, and turned to Matthew Robbins and his team at Artfool for artistic direction. “One of the biggest things we had to figure out was what to do with the chef stations. The event is usually set in a clean, white space, and they do clean, white tables and have gobos projecting the chefs' names. But City Winery is busy and rustic, so we wanted to make the stations the main attraction,” Robbins said. Using the venue's wood and copper tones as inspiration, Artfool designed and created six stationary food carts with crisp cotton canopies bearing the chef's names. “We liked the idea of old-fashioned food carts [as the stations], so we created something that gave you that feeling of a cool street cart, but a more tailored, pared-down version.”
Highlights of the menu were Tourondel's BBQ short ribs, Harold Dieterle of Perilla's poached rock shrimp in coconut broth, and Psilakis's blood orange trio, which included an oyster, a piece of raw nairagi (striped marlin), and a shot of a blood orange, gin, and Campari cocktail. With only nine offerings, the food was a bit limited compared to previous years. (Last year's 20th anniversary outing saw items from 20 chefs, and 2007's event featured six chefs plus stations from sponsors such as Häagen-Dazs and passed food from catering company Mood Food.) Sponsors Grey Goose and Beringer provided a limited bar of wine and vodka cocktails including cosmopolitans and caipiroskas (vodka caipirinhas).
The event's Soviet propaganda-inspired invite (influenced in part by Shepard Fairey's famed Obama posters) didn't carry over into much of the decor other than Constructivist-style lettering on signs, menus, and each station's canopy. Red and blue throw pillows with hand-stitched stars and stripes also echoed the invite design. “We wanted to do cool, graphic things without breaking the bank, so we relied on color and bold statements, no unnecessary expensive details,” said Robbins.
One change was the addition of a live band, which worked well with City Winery's built-in stage. Rahj and the Mash, who Vega found through MySpace, performed pop, hip-hop, and rock covers for most of the night, mashing up songs like Hall & Oates's “I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)” with Nelly's “Hot in Here.”
A few hours into the party, editor in chef Dana Cowin took the stage and announced this year's winners, including Paul Liebrandt of New York's Corton. Leading up to the awards, Cowin posted cryptic clues about the nominees on Twitter, as well as short dispatches from pre-event festivities, including a few gatherings in her apartment.
Noticeably missing was the usual gift bag. Instead, guests took home copies of the magazine's April issue and cookies from East Hampton bakery My Uncle Michael placed in large baskets near the exit.
In spite of a few scaled-back details, Vega said the event's budget had remained untouched from previous years. “This is one of our biggest events of the year, so our budget was unaffected.”