A field of wine glasses across the entire top of a grand piano twinkled against the black of night just outside the window. Indeed, the entire evening was defined by things that sparkled, from the champagne presented to guests on arrival to the women’s glittery spiked heels.
The most expensive event of the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival, which ended its eighth run Sunday, is a dinner for 65 people in a private penthouse.
The dinner was conceived in the festival’s second year by longtime Charleston event planner Denise Barto. She says she dreamed of an exclusive, ultra-elegant affair that would be headlined by nationally known chefs. Barto proposed it to the festival’s board and staff. She says they were highly skeptical at first.
The event debuted in 2006 at $500 a ticket. Cooking that night were Tom Colicchio of Gramercy Tavern in New York, Paul Kahan of Blackbird in Chicago and Norman Van Aken of Norman’s in Florida and California.
The dinner sold out. And it has every year since, even when the price rose to $750 and then to $1,000 two years ago.
So what makes a dinner worth $1,000?
Barto is biased, but she calls the event one of the “best buys” of the festival for the “quality of the wine, the food and the experience.”
For 2013, the dinner was designed as a “A Tribute to Frank Stitt.” He is an acclaimed chef and restaurateur in Birmingham, Ala., whose flagship is the Highlands Bar and Grill. Stitt is considered by many chefs, locals included, as the father of French-influenced fine Southern dining starting more than 30 years ago. Stitt also has been part of the festival since its beginning.
Food, wine and a view
Terri Henning’s penthouse view of the city and the harbor may be better than any other residential setting in Charleston. A wide terrace wraps around her condo at the top of the eight-story People’s Building built in 1910, Charleston’s first “skyscraper.”
The spectacular, 360- degree vista sweeps from the rooftops and church spires of downtown to the Yorktown and then to the “sails” of the Ravenel Bridge. At night, the length of Broad Street is illuminated to the Ashley River, where bobbing orbs of headlights can be seen crossing the James Island connector. To the east lies the inky darkness of Charleston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.
“It’s quite the view,” remarked Hugh Acheson, one the chefs, as he looked out the kitchen window at the steeple of St. Michael’s Church. “We’re not slumming it tonight.”
No, everything was made ready for this occasion with fine attention to detail. The tables were exquisitely set with all the glasses and silverware necessary for a five-course dinner. On each plate rested a menu card, tucked into a sleeve, that detailed each of the courses and the wine pairings, as well as the names of all the chefs, the wine team and the servers.
Orchid blooms were wound inside glass ball vases placed at each table. “No other flower is as luxurious as an orchid,” Barto said.
The roster of chefs was a who’s who of Southern toques. All of the chefs — Acheson and Linton Hopkins of Atlanta and Athens, Ga.; Ben and Karen Barker of Durham, N.C.; Stitt of Birmingham; and Mike Lata and Sean Brock of Charleston — have earned top James Beard awards.
The parade of food began grandly. Passed hors d’oeuvres included pimiento cheese macaroons, a scallop ceviche with Brussels sprouts kimchee, a rice puff with boiled peanut hummus.
Each of the five out-of-town chefs was responsible for a course. Among the dishes were king mackerel escabeche, guinea hen with truffled hominy and mascarpone panna cotta with sundried plums.
Hopkins prepared what he named “Crabe Stitt,” with chunks of blue crab, sunchoke puree and English peas, sauced with rendered bacon fat steeped with cayenne.
Wine flowed throughout. Save for dessert, two wines were paired with every course, usually one older vintage with one newer one. A 1993 Volnay from Burgundy was pulled from the importer’s private collection.
Behind the kitchen doors, a choreography of perfect timing and presentation unfolded. The cadre of chefs, who are colleagues and old friends, lined up side-by-side along a long island. One by one, plates were passed steadily and swiftly down the line, with each chef adding a component of the dish: a smear of sauce here, a spoonful of vegetables there, a careful placement of the protein.
Acheson served as the expediter, the last person ensuring everything was just so before handing off the plates to the wait staff.
Those servers, all dressed tuxedo-style in white jackets and bow ties, moved to their own choreography.
They balanced the plates on their arms, checking proper position, and waited until the whole group was ready. On cue, they exited in unison to the tables of animated and appreciative guests.
It was an extraordinary display of professionalism and hospitality.
Because the names and faces change, every year will be a different experience for this dinner, Food + Wine With a View.
But almost certainly, there will be two constants: On that night, the dinner will be the classiest act in town. The view will be thrilling.
And $1,000 for the ticket? Only a wallet, and the mind’s eye, can answer that question.