Science Center Ball Embraces California Theme With a Mock Orange Grove and Beachfront Pier

By Alesandra Dubin March 29, 2011, 12:30 PM EDT

Photo: Nadine Froger Photography

California Science Center Discovery Ball
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With that old energetic tune “California Here I Come” playing on the arrivals carpet amid a backdrop of evocative state travel posters, the theme on Saturday at the California Science Center's 13th annual Discovery Ball was established early: a whimsical homage to all things California, from the decor to the local restaurants and wines. The museum's hands-on vice president of food and event services, Christina Sion, oversaw this year's program, which returned to its standard Discovery Ball concept after a departure in name and format last year, when the ball took the form of the opening of the museum's new Ecosystems wing.

“As we just celebrated our one-year anniversary of our newest wing, we themed the gala with a conservation message,” Sion said. “The idea of promoting sustainability in relation to culinary practices was inspired by our partnership with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, [which each year hosts the] Seafood Watch program, which empowers consumers and businesses to make choices for healthy oceans. Our goal was to grow that concept by showcasing sustainable practices in fishing, farming, winemaking, and cooking, along with the science behind some of the best techniques currently being employed. It made perfect sense to show examples of what Californians are doing as leaders in these fields, [and so the theme] was born.”

Guests moved inside—past the kelp forest tank in the Ecosystems wing, with a scuba diver inside waving—to find a wine- and food-tasting cocktail hour set up as a mock beachfront pier inside the museum (an advantage that particular night over a real beachfront pier, as unseasonably cool weather and rain blighted the weekend). Guests entered by way of wooden planks set on the museum's floor, and found a central wine-tasting bar made to look like the historic Santa Monica Pier carousel, with its familiar lightbulbs and horses; the whimsical detail provoked considerable guest reaction, as attendees gushed about the cleverness of the setup.

Wine and food sampling came from an array of the state's top chef and winemakers, with Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken from Border Grill presenting their dishes, and also serving as co-chairs of a committee that reached out to chefs who shared their commitment to sustainable practices. They brought together eateries like Akasha, Mozza, Waterloo & City, and Feniger's Street for tastings. Wines came from the the likes of Brown Estate Vineyards in Napa Valley and Field Recordings Wine in Santa Ynez Valley. Educational displays at various stations informed guests about sustainable practices.

“As this was our first attempt at a tasting-formatted event, we were focused on integrating the chefs’ and vintners’ stations seamlessly into the decor,” Sion said. “One detail we dwelled on was how to conceal the boxes and trash that accumulates behind tables, and we thought of the idea of a beautiful cabana with a baffle in between the prep and public area. From there, we had to work the cabanas into our overall decor schematic of celebrating California. We came upon the idea of a vintage boardwalk on a pier setting where a cabana could look like a game booth—but instead of tossing a ball at a stack of milk bottles, guests enjoyed a delicious bite at each stop.”

Guests followed mock road signs to Disney Court, where the remaining tasting stations and educational activities took place in a setting that mimicked California's agricultural belt. Guests found a fragrant orange grove—with an orchard of mature trees—and a roadside fresh produce stand, which served as bar and anchor to the lounge area. But wise guests paced themselves with all the food and drink offerings, because next, the group headed downstairs to dinner in Edgerton Court. For the Napa Valley-inspired dinner, long tables interspersed with round ones lent a rustic-tinged sense of community, with starters and side dishes served family-style.

“To help engender a sense of family and community, we did a mix of family-style service with French service,” Sion said. ”Kensington Caterers prepared jars filled with lovely antipasti-like rillettes of Petaluma duck and roasted teardrop tomatoes with Laura Chenel goat cheese, which accompanied the first course, and delicious bowls of side dishes to be passed after the grilled rack of California baby lamb was served by the waitstaff. Our intent was to celebrate the great bounty of our Golden State, and I believe we did.”

During dinner, the onstage program included introductory remarks, a live auction, and a Lexus car drawing. And afterward, guests had a variety of activity options to round out the night—a Science Center ball staple. In the Loker Conference Center, guests could dance in a Hollywood-style nightclub setup. The shopping-minded could pick up culinary products from California in the General Store (the museum's gift shop). Or guests could make their way to the IMAX theater for a private screening of Adventurers in Wild California.

After it was all over, Sion intended to make the sendoff feel like leaving the California experience and crossing the border into Mexico. While attendees waited for their cars at a chilly, drizzly valet station, a Border Grill truck dished up warm, fresh churros, and a coffee and tea station rounded out the gracious experience.

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