The Buzz: A Gold Medal Dining Event
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Chuck Wielgus held a glass of wine and stood among the small, intimate crowd at the David Bouley Test Kitchen in lower Manhattan. He glanced at the room of USA Swimming Foundation supporters, who had paid $1500 per seat to attend this dinner, an event I was invited to tag along (sadly, not to eat). At the front of the room stood the best chefs in the world – including Tom Colicchio (“Top Chef”), Daniel Boulud (owner of “Daniel” -- one of the best restaurants in the world), David Bouley (renown NYC restaurateur), Daniel Humm (“Best Chef NYC”) and Florian Bellanger (“Cupcake Wars.”). They were, along with everyone else, listening to Chuck’s end-of-evening speech:
“Do you think that anyone in the world…” continued Chuck, the Executive Director of USA Swimming, glancing at the wined-and-dined attendees, “…at this moment, tonight, is having the kind of experience we are?” There was a round of applause that signified the patrons’ answer. Later, I asked the host of the event, swimming’s own Garrett Weber-Gale, how apropos Chuck’s speech was.
“This was the best meal most people ever ate,” Garrett Weber-Gale told me. “Ever.”
Last Saturday night, the best chefs in New York -- if not the world -- gathered into one tiny kitchen to produce a meal for 50 lucky (and supportive) guests. The chefs were joined by Weber-Gale -- a.k.a. “The Athletic Foodie” -- to produce a 6-course meal with a “healthy twist.” One by one, mysterious and intricately-constructed plates left the chaotic, noise-filled kitchen, and were served into the seating area. And one by one, each patron’s face fell with astonishment, intrigued by the latest dish before them. The meal, as a whole, was the result of the collective genius of these fabled chefs, cooking this personal, exclusive, and intimate dinner, all in an effort to raise money for the USA Swimming Foundation.
“Are you ready to take the video of your life?” Garrett Weber-Gale asked me an hour before the event started. He was sweating. He was nervously excited. He saw me assembling a video camera to take video of this once-in-a-lifetime event. Knowing it was coming to my town, New York, I pleaded to work the event, just to watch these chefs cook. I had long been a fan of “Top Chef.” Though I didn’t eat, I wanted to be there – along with tens of other media, including the online editor of Bon Appetit – because we all wanted to experience this small, teeny-tiny moment in culinary history.
“Oh -- is this a big deal?” I responded, tongue-in-cheek.
“These guys are the dream team,” Garrett said. “No question. Best in the world. And we have them here cooking here tonight. That’s something very special.”
Garrett was furiously texting on his phone, making last-minute adjustments. After all, he was primarily responsible for setting up this arrangement. He made the contacts, and established relationships with these top-of-the-line chefs. He labored to produce this charity function for the USA Swimming Foundation, and now, it was show time. “I can’t believe this is actually happening,” he said again, before darting back into the already-whirling kitchen to check on his soup.
Earlier, I read a Sports Illustrated article likening the event to the locker room of the 1927 Yankees. Chuck Wielgus compared it to an NBA All-Star Game. Perhaps the most apropos sports comparison came at the end of the night, when someone said: “Experiencing these chefs together, in one room, is like Garrett’s Olympic gold medal relay in Beijing. We have an Olympic gold medal chef line-up preparing this meal.”
It was in this moment, at these words, that I was kicking myself for not plunking down the necessary funds myself. (Side note: What does a donated kidney run for these days on the NYC black market?)
A World Class Menu
The menu read more like a table of contents from a science-fiction book. I knew maybe half the words on it. (This is coming from a guy who once in college subsided entirely on Raman noodles and expired mustard.) The kitchen was like a “Top Chef” episode: fast-moving, slightly chaotic. Though I hardly understood, conceptually, the food emerging from the assembly line of chefs who laboriously and swiftly constructed each plate, it sure smelled good. Reactions ranged from “This was the best thing I’ve ever tasted!” to “This was the second-best thing I’ve ever tasted -- after that other thing I just tasted!”
Here was the official menu:
-Spiced Butternut Squash Soup with Toasted Almonds (Weber-Gale’s construction)
-Peekytoe Crab and Apple with Poppy Seed Gelee Celery Coulis and Walnut Dressing
-Forager’s Treasure of Wild Mushrooms, Big Eye Toro Perigord Black Truffle-Kuzu Crisp (David Bouley)
-Loup de Mer poached with Citrus Daikon Radishes and Olio Nuovo (Daniel Humm)
-Venison with Heirloom Grains, Brussels Spouts and Huckleberries (Tom Colicchio)
-Carmelized Dough Lime Millefeuille, Milk Lemon Sherbet, Fresh Passion Fruit Sauce (Florian Bellanger)
At times, people in attendance asked themselves, “How did this happen?” I asked Garrett how this all came to be – not only the event, but his initial passion for food.
“In 2005, I was diagnosed with high blood pressure,” Garrett says. “I had to cook for myself. And I learned you can cook delicious food that is good for you.”
Weber-Gale has since gone on a culinary safari of sorts: He’s worked in Noma (the best restaurant in the world) as well as others, including Daniel (owned by attending chef Daniel Boulud.) When he formulated the relationship with Boulud, he admitted he was a huge fan. Thus began the start of a food-themed relationship. Wielgus came up with the idea for the USA Swimming Foundation event, and Weber-Gale helped gather the all-star line-up of chefs. Tom Colicchio was once a competitive swimmer and has been a self-proclaimed swim fan since “the 1970s.” He jumped at the chance to help the USA Swimming Foundation. Daniel Boulud was at the Olympics the night Garrett won the 400 freestyle relay and noted how exciting the event was. David Bouley was recruited. Daniel Humm and Florian Bellanger, too, wanted to help.
The mission? To create a “healthier” twist on each dish. Weber-Gale was in charge of a butternut squash soup, which he admits other chefs encouraged him to make it “more spicy.” He said later, when explaining his dish, “We had a little almond foam and chive oil. Not something I would have done. (Laughs.) I don’t cook with foams much in my house.”
Garrett then ran through some of the healthier twists on the dishes served:
“The main course was venison, prepared by Tom. Venison is more flavorful than beef – 50% less fat. Daniel Boulud had apple with crab, clean, not a lot of salt. I did a butternut squash and instead of cream we used rice milk. We used a lot of spice. Chive oil,” he continues. “Florian Bellanger created a light course with a little crisp pastry and a little preserved lime and lemon sorbet. Daniel Humm did a slowly poached fish with lima beans and with a citrus sauce. Super healthy sauce.”
He added: “Many people came up to me and said, ‘I thought after 6 courses, we were going to feel full. But I feel vibrant. This feels amazing!’”
It’s difficult to emphasize how memorable this event was, not only for patrons, but for Weber-Gale, who has dedicated himself not just to eating well, but eating healthy. He hopes to use his business, The Athletic Foodie, to help kids change diets and stay away from processed foods. Throughout the night, I watched the aspiring chef exchange information with these experienced master chefs, how they prepared things, tasting dishes, learning from these culinary greats. It was like a rookie learning tricks from Babe Ruth or Willie Mays. Or an aspiring writer asking Earnest Hemingway tips about dialogue.
In other words, for Garrett Weber-Gale, it was a dream come true.
“Tom Colicchio has President Clinton at his restaurant tonight,” Garrett said. “And he came here instead. That’s special for me. Everyone in the crowd had a great time. ‘You had the worlds best chefs come in here!’ They were all extremely supportive.”
A Pursuit of Two Perfections
When the world’s best create, it’s special. But bringing chefs like Boulud, Colicchio, Humm, Bouley, and Bellanger together was like bringing the “Beatles” with “Van Halen” and a twist of “Springsteen” and saying, “We’re going to do an album, and the only criteria is to ROCK!” It was a fusion of the best-of-the-best, together in one fast-moving kitchen. Hence, the Wielgus quote about experiencing a truly unique event. That’s the beauty when you gather people with passion and talent. You get a memorable experience.
“I told the USA Swim Foundation this would be like nothing they have never done – ever,” Garrett said. “My mind was blown.”
And yet, the analogy I kept using, as I was watched these chefs cook, literally entranced by the perfected whirling motions of downward blades and chopping and slicing and seasoning, was, “This is just like watching an Olympic swimmer train.”
When you are faced with real, true beauty, you know it. Just like if Michael Phelps were to casually slip into a lap-swimming lane, unnoticed, and begin to swim: people will eventually stop and watch. Lifeguards will tap each other and say, “Who is that swimming?” It is art.
For many guests who attended the Gold Medal Dining Event, the dinner was a fusion of many senses -- a perfect storm of taste, touch and smell. But throughout the evening, I saw many patrons leave their chairs, stretch their legs, and wander to the kitchen, where they could watch from the sidelines (a few feet from the action) these chefs cleaning plates, slicing venison, seasoning, dipping fingers into anonymous and strange-looking sauces and nodding, as if to concede that, yes, this is the best sauce ever made.
For many of these generous patrons, for Garrett Weber-Gale, for the assistant chefs, for the waiters and waitresses, for the photographers and media interviewers, watching this collection of people construct one perfect, unforgettable meal was the same feeling I get when I watch Phelps dive into a clear, undisturbed lane.
“I can only aspire to be as great as these guys,” Garrett says. “They are huge sources of inspiration for me, and the world in general. They’ve dedicated their life to the thing they love, and they’ve become the best in the world at it.”
Though they are different environments – exchange a little chlorine for Morton’s salt – you have similar amounts of genius. I commend Garrett Weber-Gale. If we were all only so ambitious to strive for the heights of not just one apex of an art… but two.