Monday, February 2, 2015

Washington Social Diary

Jose Andres and Joan Nathan stop by a "Supper" to say thank you to the charitable guests.
by Carol Joynt

In only its seventh year, the annual January Sips & Suppers fundraising weekend has become a fixture of the Washington winter social calendar. The brainchild of three notable chefs, DC’s own Jose Andres and Joan Nathan, and Berkeley, CA., foodie icon Alice Waters, it raises money for two organizations that are key in aiding the homeless in the nation’s capital – DC Central Kitchen and Martha’s Table. This year they hit close to $600,000. The event happens “rain, snow or sleet,” which this past week made a difference. We didn’t get the blast that hit the northeast, but we had the hysterical warnings and watched from a fortunate distance.

That said, I did have an up-and-back Amtrak trip to New York last week – translates as the 6 a.m. in one direction and the 4 p.m. in the other – and it was a pleasure to gaze from the windows at the white fields, frosty rivers and beautiful cloudscape of the so-called “northeast corridor.” I know, industrial New Jersey is not a postcard, but a layer of snow and a stunning winter sky can make even that vista photogenic. The train, while not perfect, still feels like one of the last sanctuaries from the extreme security and other hassles of air travel, and each recent trip has made me wonder why this country doesn’t invest more in its passenger rail system.
New Jersey viewed from Amtrak.
Bare trees and snowy fields prompt thoughtful gazing from the train window. 
The car attendant on my way up also works the Auto Train, and we shared praise for that almost half-century old “car train.”  If you haven’t taken a trip on the Auto Train, do, while we have it. It is the class of the field of Amtrak passenger trains – well run, on time, and good enough food (though I usually pack a picnic basket for the overnight trip).

This time of year, if you take it south from Lorton, VA, to its destination near Orlando, you go to sleep in the mid-Atlantic deep freeze and wake up in the Florida sun with a quick 3-hour drive to Palm Beach, another 45 minutes to Miami, and all your baggage and stuff snug in the trunk ... at no extra charge.
Some more New Jersey ...
But back to cold Washington and warm generosity and charity and an event that was born during the first inauguration of President Barack Obama with both a charitable and political spin, as well as an early iteration of the locavore movement, as Waters urged that the chefs use local protein and produce.

The way Sips & Suppers breaks down is literally as that, a Saturday night party of “Sips” at the Newseum, where dozens and dozens of restaurants set up tables to serve food and cocktails to hundreds of guests, paying $95 a ticket, and Sunday night “Suppers,” which are intimate seated dinners at the homes of notable hosts, with dinner prepared in their kitchens by notable chefs. The seated dinner tickets are $500 per person and up, but in the past several years in which I’ve attended, a real deal, and the price has held steady.  
The Sips & Suppers founders: Joan Nathan, Jose Andres, and Alice Waters, at the Saturday night event at the Newseum.
Jose Andres, Mike Curtin of DC Central Kitchen, Patty Stonesifer of Martha's Table, Joan Nathan, and Alice Waters.
Alice Waters signs one of her books.
“The hosts are key to the success of the event,” says Nathan, adding they get chosen in two ways – they ask or they are asked. This year the hosts included Washington Nationals superstar Ryan Zimmerman and his wife, Heather; philanthropists George and Trish Vradenburg, lobbyist Tony Podesta, author Quinn Bradlee, The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Elsa Walsh, Graham Holdings’ Marcus Brauchli, media and tennis consultants Ray and Nina Benton, Politics and Prose bookstore owners Lissa Muscatine and Bradley Graham, and restaurateur James Alefantis, among many others. The Bentons and the Vradenburgs go back to the beginning.  There were 33 dinners in all. Waters, Nathan and Andres typically journey around town from dinner to dinner, popping in to say “thank you.”
Mixologists mixing as fast as possible. Sorry, a trip is not included, but still shaking it up at the "Celebrity Cruise Lounge."
Guests enjoy food and drink samples at the Saturday night "Sips" party.
Working together, DC chefs Victor Albisu and Mike Isabella.
TV celebrity chef Carla Hall plates at dish at one of the "Suppers."
Stirring the pot ... of soup or sauce.
Jose takes a taste.
A view of the "Sips" party at the Newseum.
The chefs for the at-home Suppers included Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve, Mike Isabella of Graffiato, Victor Albisu of Del Campo, Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen, Ris Lacoste of Ris, Jeff Buben of Vidalia,  Francis Layrle of La Piquette, Frank Ruta of The Grill Room, Erik Bruner Yang of Toki Underground, Michael Friedman of Red Hen, Vikram Sunderam of Rasika, Michael Costa of Zaytinya, Kevin LaRoche of Blue Duck Tavern, David Guas of Bayou Bistro, Scott Drewno of The Source, Jamie Leeds of Hank’s Oyster Bar, and David Chang of (the soon to open here) Momofuku.

All the chefs are too many to mention but these locals deserve mention because in the last few years the restaurant industry has eclipsed media and government as the star power here. In fact, during the “Suppers,” dinner guests often slip away from cocktails or in between courses to visit the kitchens and hang out with the chefs.
Visiting Chef Charles Phan, owner and chef of The Slanted Door in San Francisco, Wolf Blitzer of CNN, and Chef Ryan LaRoche of DC's Blue Duck Tavern.
Mike Curtin, Winston Bao Lord, and Washington Nationals superstar, Ryan Zimmerman.
Mike Isabella and Victor Albisu.
Jose Andres prompts a chuckle from food writer Marion Burros.
Jose Andres and Joan Nathan, as they make their rounds from party to party.
Supper group: Beth Steindecker, Adam Sobel, Jeremy Steindecker, John Hasenberg, Kimberly Hasenberg, Mike Solomonov, and Joan Nathan.
“I think about chefs all year,” says Nathan, “meeting them and asking them to join,” adding that she gets into “high gear” in October and the work escalates from there. “Sometimes the hosts want us to have a special chef. So we’ll contact them.” Chefs pair up and some have asked to work together year after year.  The chefs often return to the same hosts, too. “I love these bonds,” she says.

Nathan, a cookbook author, has collected a book’s worth of anecdotes about the dinners, so far. Her favorite is still her first one in 2009, though. “It was very exciting to see my son's high school friends waiting the tables, my friends helping me cook Moroccan food.  Samantha Powers (now U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.) and her husband were there. We borrowed the silver tagines from the then Moroccan Ambassador and the food was delicious.”
Table setting at one of the Suppers.
One of the "Suppers," at the home of Billy and Suellen Lazarus, who is a "Sips & Suppers" host and volunteer. The chefs for this dinner were Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore and Stephen Satterfield of Million Union in Atlanta.
There have been near disasters but nothing too serious – a host who was reluctant to tap his friends, but then his wife did; a chef who fell ill at the 11th hour, but others stepped in for him.

I was curious how she got together with Waters and Andres, and Nathan said she first met Waters in 1987 “but we really bonded in 2005 when as the curator of Food Culture USA for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival I suggested that she come to Washington and construct her eatable schoolyard on the National Mall. Jose was still a young chef then and also participated in Food Culture USA. It was wild and wonderful.”
A contact sheet of the Sips & Suppers chefs. Photos by Ken Cedeno.
Photographs by Elizabeth Parker, Ken Cedeno & Carol Joynt

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt