Common Threads Festival Lures Celebrity Chefs

Personalities from top restaurants, cooking shows, and Top Chef came together for Art Smith's third annual Common Threads World Festival.

By Jenny Berg March 31, 2008, 10:00 AM EDT

Chef stations featured elegant food presentations.

Photo: Lee Hoagland

Common Threads' World Festival
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Chef Art Smith has friends in high (or highly gourmet) places. This much was evident at the third annual Common Threads' World Festival, held on March 17 at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Attended by food-world celebrities ranging from Padma Lakshmi to Rocco DiSpirito and Paula Deen, the fund-raiser produced some culinary star power.

Founded by Smith four years ago, Common Threads educates underprivileged children about nutrition and international cuisine. The charity’s chef advisory board is made up of names from respected—and ethnically diverse—Chicago restaurants. Once a week, a chef from the board leads an in-classroom cooking demo for children 8 to 12 years old.

When creating a concept for Common Threads’ annual fund-raiser, “We tried to mimic what we do in the classroom by creating this world festival walk-around,” said Common Threads executive director Linda Novick O’Keefe. To that end, she employed staggered food stations. “Each chef is asked to represent a different country through food,” she explained. For its first two years, Common Threads' World Festival was held at the Chicago Cultural Center; this year, it was held at the M.C.A.

Sean Cannon, a partner in Event Creative, the production company that underwrites the affair, said the most production-heavy aspect of this year's event was the V.I.P. lounge, open to top ticket-holders an hour before the event began. Held on stage in the museum’s theater, the reception was designed to evoke a Russian winter (a theme inspired by World Festival's international angle). A white color scheme prevailed in everything from linens to low-slung seating and an illuminated Moët & Chandon bar. Event Creative arranged for clips from Doctor Zhivago to flicker across the theater’s back wall, and a Belvedere ice luge held dishes of chilled caviar at its base. 

Upstairs, Cannon used the stark, white space of the museum's atrium “as a blank canvas to speak about the kids.” At each food station, colorfully dressed chalkboards spelled out the name and corporate sponsor of each chef. Along the atrium’s walls, eight projection screens flashed sponsors’ names and footage of children cooking in the Common Threads classroom.

To achieve the world festival feel, Novick O'Keefe clustered food stations by cultural flavor. In the Latin American section, for example, bartenders served Latin wines and chef Randy Zweiban (of Nacional 27) served tostadas. In the atrium's main hallway, Art Smith represented the deep South by cooking up Wagyu sloppy joes on cheddar-cheese biscuits. The walk-around extended through the museum onto a tented patio, where a silent-auction table was surrounded by bars and more international food stations.

After a live auction led by Top Chef judges Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons, roughly 250 V.I.P. guests hopped into taxis and headed to a sugar-themed after-party at the James Hotel. (Entrance was guaranteed by a wristband and a Common Threads spoon strung around the neck.) For the past two years, the after-party has been for the chefs only; this year, $500 ticket holders were invited to join in. At a Moët & Chandon lounge inside the hotel, guests sipped hibiscus-infused champagne and kicked back on couches strewn with logoed silk pillows. The late-night party continued the evening’s menu of famous-chef-prepared fare: James Hotel staff circulated with glasses of banana pudding prepared by after-party host Paula Deen.

The night ended with an intimate concert from John Legend, who sang in the James Hotel's great room east on a stage that Events Creative erected. (“That was our biggest challenge,” Cannon said of bringing the stage up a small elevator and into the 60- by 60-foot room.) After an introduction from  Deen, Legend performed hits from his albums and debuted his new song “Good Morning.” Throughout the performance, images of Common Threads students flickered on screens flanking the stage, continuing to remind the guests why they were there.

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