Local Chefs Illuminate Homelessness

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Chef Omar Gonzalez serves up truffle risotto with poached asparagus, shaved black truffles and aged parmesan crisps.
Chef Omar Gonzalez serves up truffle risotto with poached asparagus, shaved black truffles and aged parmesan crisps.
By Eileen Keighley
By Eileen Keighley

Three Laguna chefs recently switched their kitchens for a Disneyland Resort Hotel ballroom, all in the name of the Illumination Foundation, which helps homeless families and their children. The annual OC Chef’s Table event brought together local politicians, philanthropists, and supporters, who enjoyed a gourmet meal created and cooked for them by one of 32 top Orange County chefs.

Last year, the foundation constructed their first house and since last Thanksgiving they have helped over 20 families with emergency housing. This year’s event March 12 raised over $680,000, which foundation leaders say will be used to create another home and take in double the number of families, creating a stable environment for them to achieve self-sufficiency.

Laguna was represented by chefs from three restaurants, Alejandro Guzman from Centrál, the Gonzalez brothers Rosendo and Omar from Nick’s, and Ron Fougeray from Splashes at Surf and Sand Resort. Each created a unique experience for their guests.

The chef’s table experience has exploded in popularity as a fundraising format and destination for foodies. The annual Table for Ten Chef’s Table just took place in Dana Point and featured four Laguna Beach restaurants, Maro Wood Grill, Nirvana, The Loft at the Montage resort and Harvest from The Ranch.

Chefs acknowledge that showcasing is a major part of the event, but not the primary motivator. “OC Chef’s Table gives us the opportunity to give back to our community. I want to help and contribute to this cause,” said Omar Gonzalez, Nick’s regional chef.

His peers echoed this sentiment. “For me, it’s a great opportunity to meet other chefs, but most importantly it’s a great cause,” Fougeray said. “My wife introduced me to the Illumination Foundation and their work a couple of years ago, and I knew I had to get involved.”

The event itself is grand and full of excitement. A battle of the sushi chefs kicked off the evening and, in a tight competition, Chef Jennifer Ravalo and the all-women staff of SuShe Art took the winning title. This healthy sense of creative competition ran throughout the evening. The first glimpse were the tables, some of which had taken teams nearly five hours to prepare, and featured everything from live fish to items from a ‘50s era ocean liner. “It’s a team effort both before and on the day,” noted Chef Fougeray. “At Splashes, I worked with the food and beverage director as well as two teams, one for the core table and one for the flowers.” This teamwork was evidenced by a table full of surprises like menus perfectly placed in mason jars filled with sand and shells or pieces of white coral and driftwood.

Alongside each guest table were chef stations, complete with a ceremoniously laid out prep area. As the finishing touches were made, the room took on an air of anticipation. With guests paying anywhere between $1,000 to $50,000, just what did it take to host a chef’s table and why does this type of event attract some of Laguna’s best restaurants?

First, they must stick to the rules. Deliver the guests a full-on white glove experience and be as elaborate as they wanted with the menu and table design, centerpieces of no higher than five feet and a minimum of five courses.

Over several years Nick’s Restaurants developed stronger ties with the foundation. “They don’t only participate in our glamorous evenings, but are also a part of all our events directly benefiting our local homeless families and children,” said Paul Leon, president and chief executive of the Irvine-based nonprofit. “They work with the families and that is invaluable. All our families look forward to seeing Nick’s chefs and Nick himself at all our client events, big or small, because they know that they’ll always be greeted with a warm smile, conversation and incredible food.”

Nick’s table design spelled out their passion for the cause: a stunningly beautiful three-foot tall flower chandelier with cascading “IF” letters, the Illumination Foundation’s symbol. Their menu, inspired by American classics and some of Nick’s famous dishes, was served up with a twist. Dessert included their famous butter cake with a special accompaniment of a mini carajillo, coffee fortified with spirits.

Centrál, one of Laguna’s newest restaurants, focused on its food heritage and restaurant values, rooted in modern American fusion. The chef’s passion for using sustainable and local ingredients came across in a natural and elegant table design playfully entitled “Return to Earth.” “Who tastes and sees my food, meets me in my creation,” Guzman said.

Inspired by its ocean side location, Splashes’s centerpiece relied on driftwood, a vibrant mixture of aqua and white and complementary flowers. Fougeray constructed a six-course menu featuring four cuts of lamb, each providing different textures and flavors.

Dinner over, guests each were treated to a personalized Disney inspired cupcake. Both guests and chefs came away knowing their contribution in money and effort will help make a new home a reality for some of the county’s most vulnerable children and families.

This video illustrates where the funds were going (you can watch it HERE).


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