Alice Waters's Minimalist Inaugural Dinners Bring Together Country's Culinary Stars

Consistently at the forefront of the sustainable agriculture movement, Alice Waters�"owner of organic temple Chez Panisse�"produced an eco-friendly dinner series honoring the new president.

By Walter Nicholls January 20, 2009, 10:51 AM EST

Alice Waters gave remarks at the foot of the grand staircase, which leads to the site of the dinner in the museum's original building,

Photo: Tony Brown/Imijination Photography for BizBash

Art. Food. Hope. Inaugural Event
Search our directory

A frigid wind was not the only driving force on Embassy Row last night as sustainable agriculture guru Alice Waters brought together the superstars of the culinary world to produce an “Inaugural Supper” for 175 guests at the Phillips Collection and for groups of 22 to 40 guests in 11 private homes across the city. 

In six short weeks, with the capital in planning overdrive, Waters and the staff of her restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California, recruited dozens of Washington-area volunteers, rented a venue (when most were spoken for), secured food and drink donations from sponsors, hired a noted caterer, and staged an eco-organic event-called “Art. Food. Hope.” that honored the new president and benefited local food banks.

The 500 tickets, priced at $500, sold out quickly in mid-December and brought to the museum a roster of guests including Martha Stewart, Jackson Browne, and Calvin Trillin. The event benefited D.C. Central Kitchen and Martha's Table as well as the charitable arm of the farmers market group, FreshFarm Markets.  

“When Alice called, I thought it was a pie-in-the-sky idea. But she was like a C.E.O.,” said area resident and cookbook author Joan Nathan, who recruited top chefs (Daniel Boulud, Nancy Silverton, Lidia Bastianich, Jose Andres, and Rick Bayless) and secured hosts (Bob Woodward among them) who opened their homes. “That’s the way to raise money without spending money,” said Waters. “Take volunteer chefs to homes and create magic.”  

Champagne (donated by Henriot) was passed in the foyer of the Phillips, where guests slurped Long Island oysters from the half shell and a heady aroma wafted from mounds of fresh rosemary piled on the service tables. In brief remarks of welcome, Waters said of Barack Obama: “It feels like 40 years of longing, waiting for someone who spoke my language, someone who brought people back to the table, back to their senses.”

In the heavily embellished 1897 Georgian Revival music room of the Phillips, three 24-foot-long by 30-inch-wide tables provided intimate seating for 90 guests, with soft, romantic lighting provided by votives and minimal earth-toned decor. At six-foot lengths along the tables, copper bowls held a handful of tiny tangerines on the stem. Waters insisted on minimal glassware (wine and water) and silverware (knife and fork), which gave a clean look. New York-based clothing and housewares designer Christina Kim, who has worked with Waters on past projects, created the decor highlight: hand-stitched table linens made from recycled fabrics the color of sand and embellished with appliqués and wood block prints.  

With no cooking facilities at the Phillips, the main course of braised lamb, a variety of beans, and Sea Island red peas was prepared by Chez Panisse chefs at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria and held in a kitchen tent behind the museum until serving time. (Ingredients for all dinners were sourced from local farms, ranches, dairies, and fisheries or donated by Whole Foods Markets.) Susan Gage Caterers provided rentals and staff and coordinated the evening with Waters and her crew.

There were no flowers. “Alice doesn’t do flowers,” said Gage. “Her theme was ‘simple as possible,’ then, make it even simpler. That’s her whole philosophy: Less is more.” Soon after the apple tart with honey ice cream and fresh dates, guests returned to the bitter cold streets. Some were headed to a restaurant on Capital Hill for an after-party that brought together the crews from all the dinners. Others headed home for rest before the significant day of events ahead.


Correction: This original version of this story incorrectly named Veuve Clicquot as the champage provider; it was Henriot.

Your email inquiry will be sent to 3 venue