Kevin Cody

LA Times/Manhattan Beach Food Bowl cool in every way

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LA Food Bowl chefs (left to right) Walter Manzke of Republique, Josiah Citrin of Melisse, Michael Cimarrusti of Providence, David Lefevre of MB Post, Suzanne Goin of Lucques, Austin Cobb of Strand House, and Michael Fiorelli of Love & Salt. Photo by JP Cordero

by Richard Foss

The hottest South Bay dining event of the year featured celebrity chefs from all over Los Angeles cooking alongside top locals, but the usual attire of sport coats and cocktail dresses was notably absent. It was cool and threatening to rain Thursday night during the sustainable seafood dinner and a breeze blew across the tables on the sand by the Manhattan Beach pier. So most attendees wore what any sensible person would wear for an evening walk on the beach, despite the event’s cost and prestige. The 300 guests paid $275 to attend the LA Times Food Bowl event.

Photos by JP Cordero

The sustainable seafood theme, while conceptually fitting for an outdoor meal on the beach, was a political and logistical challenge. Restrictions imposed by the city included a ban on amplified sound and artificial lighting. The multi-course gourmet dinner required a makeshift kitchen that had to be built and dismantled in the course of a single day. The seafood, produce, and wine was wheeled across the sand on a plywood boardwalk that was dismantled behind their carts and reassembled in front of them, like click clack blocks. At the end of the event everything had to be removed, leaving the beach at it was. The huge undertaking required military precision.

Happily, Outstanding in the Field, the company that handled logistics for the dinner, specializes in just this kind of extravaganza. When asked whether the unexpected cool breeze would disrupt their plans, event director Anna Gelb gave a surprising answer.

“All of our events take place outside and most are on farms, so we’re always at the whim of the weather. It’s actually more memorable when we get tumultuous weather – everybody talks about it afterwards. It helps remind people they’re in an untamed space. Having this feast literally steps from the water helps tell the story of sustainable seafood in the LA area. The local fishermen are named on the menu, so being outside is central to the theme. There’s a symbiotic relationship between what people are eating and where they’re eating it.”

Photos by Richard Foss

David LeFevre of Fishing With Dynamite was similarly unfazed by the weather as he assembled halibut terrines on squid ink rice chip crackers with radish slices and sprigs of dill.

“If I knew what the weather would be like I would have done fewer chilled items and more warm items, but we can execute everything we planned. Everything I’m doing here is something I’d be proud to serve in the restaurant.”

LeFevre was one of several chefs who mentioned he was attracted to the event because of its themes of environmental consciousness and rediscovering local seafood. Many expressed the hope that trying dishes made with non-threatened species would change the dining and buying habits of those who attended. Josiah Citrin, who became famous at Santa Monica’s Melisse and also owns Charcoal in Venice, was asked whether he thought that this event was primarily educational or entertainment, He was adamant it was both.

“I want to entertain them, I want to feed them, and I want to inspire them to look outside their usual paths and find things that are best for our environment. I grew up surfing here and sustainability is really important to me.”

All of the chefs interviewed expressed a sensitivity to presenting the seafood with subtlety so that the flavors of the natural ingredients were front and center. Sometimes this meant a traditional pairing would be presented with a new twist, as in oysters with ponzu sauce also enhanced with pickled peach slices. Another novel reimagining was crabmeat and corn soup, popular both in New England and in Chinese communities, but here presented with melon and cucumber. Other ideas were untethered to tradition, such as Josiah Citrin’s Channel Islands vermilion rockfish that was grilled and then topped with white asparagus, morel mushrooms, green garlic, and miso sauce. Ten savory items and one dessert were served, along with five wines and two beers.    

Before the main event there were short presentations by several seafood experts, including diver Stephanie Mutz, who had harvested the sea urchins from the Santa Barbara channel. These were served with a topping of chopped seaweed and thinly sliced radish. She brought several of the live shellfish with her, and explained their life cycle while diners posed for pictures holding the spiny creatures.

Mutz was followed by biologist Sarah Rathbone of Dock to Dish, who informed the audience of some of the strange economies of the seafood trade that distort the meaning of the word “local.” For instance, much of the squid caught near Catalina is shipped to China for processing into calamari rings, which are promptly re-exported to California. The information obviously was new to most of her hearers, who continued to discuss it as they adjourned to dinner. It was the kind of conversation that the event was designed to spark, but when asked whether she thought any listeners would change their buying habits, Rathbone gave a surprising answer.

“I think part of this is preaching to the converted, but that’s not all bad. When you have this many people in one space who are dedicated to the same goal, who have that same sense of consciousness about where their food comes from, it’s going to filter out into their neighborhoods. They’ll talk to their friends about this event, about the things they learned and that kind of conversation starts people thinking.”

For at least some of the audience, it really was new information. Sanjay Khurana said attending this event might help turn a vague sense that something is wrong into a set of actions.

“I have never come to an event like this, but I want to do my small part about being a steward of the environment, whatever that may be. When we have seafood today we’re cognizant of the broader environmental issues, and this is a great way to raise awareness while experiencing some great food. As a Manhattan Beach resident, I think it’s a win-win.”

Being a Manhattan Beach resident he was aware that some residents objected to having the event on the sand.

“I read about the controversy, and I understand the concern. I understand that the beach is and should remain primarily a public space, and I’m still forming an opinion about when there should be exceptions.”

Noelle Parks, owner of Noelle Interiors, had made up her mind.

“I think the worry is that these events might cause trash and noise, but I doubt that will be a problem. Most of the people here are local, and they’re super respectful of the beach and want to take care of what we have. The company that does this, Outstanding in the Field, has a really good reputation and is trusted to take care of all the details.”

Those logistics, as well as both the restrictions set by the city and the daunting permit process needed to run an event here, do indeed make it likely that beachfront dinners will be rare. Still, it is also likely that more will happen, because this event was an unqualified success and will spark the imaginations of other event planners who are looking for a stunning setting for a memorable meal. ER




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