PAULA LeDUC SAYS it's a willingness to work behind the scenes that makes her operation a good bet for partnering with celebrity chefs. “We're coaches for them,” explains the owner of Emeryville, Calif.-based Paula LeDuc Fine Catering. “We don't get in the way of letting them shine.” According to LeDuc, it was this sensitivity to the star chef's marquee role that won her company a plum job with culinary luminary Daniel Boulud on a lavish March fund-raising gala at the newly reopened San Francisco Ferry Building.
Brought on by fund-raising beneficiary University of California San Francisco Comprehensive Cancer Center two months before the event, LeDuc set out to establish a link with New York-based Boulud.
The first step in the process was connecting LeDuc's executive chef, Donna Insalaco, with the Boulud crew. A veteran of New York and Los Angeles restaurant kitchens, Insalaco “knows a lot of these chefs and understands how restaurateurs function,” LeDuc says. “Donna takes them down the road of developing the menu. If they haven't had catering experience, she will explain how things are executed on site, what the capabilities for cooking are, what the logistics of the space are, etc.”
With Boulud, the mind behind boutique catering operation Feast & Fêtes in addition to four acclaimed restaurants, experience was not an issue. Still, cross-continent coordinating required special measures. Among these, LeDuc counts introducing Boulud to local products. For a crab salad, for instance, West Coast Dungeness crab was suggested to replace proposed Peekytoe crab — a specialty exclusive to the East Coast — to ensure availability and freshness.
Perhaps the most challenging event-prep step, according to Geoffrey Applegarth, LeDuc's senior account executive, was an intense four-hour tasting involving members of the LeDuc team, Boulud's sous chef, event committee members and UCSF event staff.
Conducted in February, the tasting involved setting a test table with proposed linen and dinnerware and creating mock-up presentation plates, then allowing participants to sample each item before settling on a $115,000 menu for the event's 530 guests. “Of course, we tried wines with everything, too,” Applegarth laughs. “It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.”
Although the Ferry Building was still undergoing the last touches of construction on event day, arriving guests would never have known it.
After enjoying hors d'oeuvre and cocktails in the building's West foyer, attendees proceeded to a scrim reveal of “a gorgeous dining room aglow in lights,” Applegarth says. Enhancing the atmosphere of the main event area were suspended 8-foot-wide fabric butterflies from Walnut Creek, Calif.-based event designer Image Three, and white rose topiary centerpieces from San Francisco-based floral expert Claire Marie.
Within moments, diners were welcomed and seated, then treated to a sumptuous meal that included a duo entree of braised short ribs in red wine and peppered filet mignon served with celery root puree and braised celery stalks. “It's unusual to have two proteins on the plate,” Applegarth notes. “But that was Daniel's vision, and we loved it.”
The high point of the dining experience came after a dessert of strawberry melba with lime chantilly, when waiters — each bearing a gold and navy balloon on a plate — positioned themselves at guest tables. Presented with toothpicks, guests were instructed to pop the balloons, which burst to reveal an assortment of petits fours. LeDuc calls the interactive adventure “a Daniel Boulud trademark.”
Like her company's past collaborations with celebrity chefs including Alice Waters, Gary Danko and Jeremiah Tower, the partnership with Boulud was “a great marriage,” LeDuc says. “The reason we do so many of these events is that we grow and learn so much from one another every time. We make great friends in our industry.”
In the case of the UCSF event, that friendship led to an invitation for LeDuc and Insalaco to join Boulud onstage for applause at the evening's close, and another to cook with him in his New York kitchen a little further down the road.
The ultimate measure of the event's success was the evening's fund-raising draw: With a goal of $2 million, the biennial event actually raised $3 million from this year's gala, making it “one of the biggest grossing gala events in the country,” according to Applegarth.
Paula LeDuc Fine Catering 1350 Park Ave., Emeryville, CA 94608; 888/443-4498, 510/547-7825; www.paulaleduc.com
DINNER FROM TWO
Crab Salad with Coriander, Cumin and Lime in a Spring Carrot Coulis with Peppery Cress
Duo of Braised Short Ribs in Red Wine and Peppered Filet Mignon, Served with Celery Root Puree and Braised Green Celery Stalks
Tomato Tarte Tatin with Goat Cheese and Sweet Onion Compote, Basil Pistou and Radicchio Trevisano
Roasted Portobello Mushrooms Served with Celery Root Puree and Braised Green Celery Stalks
Strawberry Melba with Lime Chantilly and a Miniature Rhubarb Turnover
Assorted Petits Fours
Turn to page 57 for a list of resources for this event.