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At the Ecology Center’s Green Feast, 20 Chefs Work with Food Found Within 250 Miles.

Written By: Mary McNulty 20 Amazing Chefs Show Off Their Talent
Photography By: Scott Sporleder

The Ecology Center
32701 Alipaz St
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
949.661.9381 | www.theecologycenter.org

The competition for charitable dollars is intense. Every year, nonprofits such as the Ecology Center up the game in order to continue supporting the community. The most anticipated event at the Ecology Center is Green Feast, where 20 chefs prepare a remarkable meal with locally sourced products. The chefs are tasked with producing a meal for 200-plus individuals using ingredients found within a 250-mile radius. Thankfully this is Southern California, which has an abundance of urban farms and fishing fleets, but as we will discover, there are still some ingredient challenges.

Many of the chefs volunteer at the Ecology Center, including Chef Paddy Glennon of Santa Monica Seafood and Chef John Cuevas of Waterman’s Harbor. The big auction winner of the evening had dinner prepared by the two on the Ecology Center porch. Ann Nguyen, who handles communication and marketing for the Ecology Center, explained the massive amount of detail and planning required to host the dinner. As she noted, planning the event is a year-round task with a delicious, rewarding payout at the end.

Q: How does all of this work? Is one chef responsible for the menu?
Ann Nguyen: Chefs who are participating in the appetizer competition are responsible for their own dishes. The main course chefs work collaboratively in teams to create four sets of family-style dishes with complementary sides.

Q: Did you ever believe Green Feast would become such an anticipated event?
AN: We are definitely pleasantly surprised by Green Feast’s success. We knew that it would be popular because it’s such a unique experience, but we did not think it would sell out within six hours. And we have a very long wait list, as well as more interested chefs who want to participate next year. It’s a good problem to have. And we’ve been told to open a second Green Feast. It’s definitely an idea we’re considering for next year.

Q: What is your favorite aspect of the dinner?
AN: Most definitely the food! The hardest part of Green Feast is also the most rewarding: finding all the ingredients within 250 miles of the Ecology Center. We’re talking salt, flour, sugar, etc. Often people hear the challenge and they think, “I can’t do that. I can’t go without sugar.” It’s about changing that mindset. Instead of sugar, what about honey? What can you make with what you do have available before having it shipped thousands of miles (using up fossil fuel and other natural resources) to get it to our table? Flour is another great example. Most of our flour comes from the Midwest. When we asked around about local flour, we got an interesting story from Weiser Family Farms: California used to be called the Golden State because of our wheat fields. And, on top of that, heritage wheat varieties are drought-tolerant and ideal crops for arid environments like Southern California. Alex Weiser and other local farmers in the Tehachapi Valley are trying to revive the tradition of growing wheat and they’re doing it in a region that gets only four inches of rain a year. It’s only their second harvest and they’re already getting orders from local breweries, bakers and restaurants. As an ecological educational center, our message is to be better stewards of the environment, and to be better stewards we need to know how the choices we make affect us. From the food we choose to eat to the clothes we choose to wear, these things all come with an environmental cost that we don’t think about. The 250-mile challenge is about reconnecting and bridging those gaps.

Q: Which are the chefs and restaurants were involved with this year’s Green Feast?
AN: Main course chefs were Ryan Adams of 370 Common/The North Left, Paul Buchanan of Primal Alchemy, Kerri Cacciata of Local Tastes Better, John Cuevas of Still Water/Waterman’s Harbor, Greg Daniels of Haven Gastropub, Patrick Glennon of Santa Monica Seafood, Steve Kling of Five Crowns/Side Door, Cathy McKnight of Model Meals, Rich Mead of Farmhouse at Roger’s Gardens, David Pratt of BRICK and Debra Sims of Maro Wood Grill. The Eco App Off Chefs are Jeffrey Boullt of SOCIAL, Raj Dixit of Stonehill Tavern at St. Regis, Michael Doctulero of Scott’s Seafood; Joe Magnanelli, Chad Urata and Brent Omeste of Cucina Enoteca; Justin Monson of Club 33, Pascal Olhats of Pascal’s, Cathy Pavlos of Lucca/Provenance, and Debra Sims of Maro Wood Grill. Find a complete list here: www.theecologycenter.org/news/meet-green-feast-2015-chefs

Q: How many participated for the first time?
AN: Seven of those chefs participated for the first time.

Q: The event could not go off without the volunteers. How many volunteers were involved in the preparation and when did their involvement start?
AN: We are immensely grateful for our volunteers. We have about 100 volunteers involved and depending on their engagement some start as early as two weeks prior to the event. Our volunteers who work on the beautiful table settings will start a week or so before, gathering local flowers and staging it in advance so they know how much they’ll need on the day. There’s definitely a lot of planning that goes into this. This year we also have sous chef opportunities for those who wanted to work closely with a chef throughout the event and leading up to it. The chefs tasked them with foraging ingredients and prepping dishes on the event day. Of course, our volunteers also got to enjoy the food! Pascal, one of the Green Feast chefs, made a whole spread of food just for volunteers.

Q: How was the menu planning process?
AN: We are very deeply engaged in menu planning and this process begins in June at a Chef’s Lunch gathering at the Ecology Center. We share with our chefs a list of local farmers, growers, fishermen, vintners and artisans whom we’ve vetted. The menu begins to shape up depending on what’s ready to harvest in the fall season, so there’s a lot of research and farm visits happening early on. The first course (created by chefs Steve Kling, Rich Mead and Cathy McKnight in collaboration) featured tarbais beans from Weiser Family Farms and crab from Newport Beach Dory Fleet. The second course (Paul Buchanan, John Cuevas and David Pratt) had freshly caught fish from Santa Monica Seafood, foraged stinging nettles and lemon verbena from Gladys Ave Farm. There was also goat cheese, figs and fennel in the dessert.

Q: Which products were highlighted this year?
AN: A lot of late summer/early fall season produce were featured—beans, chilies, squash, figs and eggplants. This was the first year the chefs are doing foraging so that’s another exciting ingredient we looked forward to.

Q: I am certain that wine pairings were selected. There are great wineries in both Santa Barbara and Temecula.
AN: Yes, there was definitely wine pairings. The wineries that have involved were Tablas Creek, Zotovich Cellars and Palumbo Winery.