When Toro Executive Chef Josh Elliott approached me back in February about hosting a spirit free dinner, I thought it was a fine idea and brought it to Ken and Jamie who immediately agreed. A month or two later we solidified logistics and asked five chefs to participate, they all said yes straightaway. A few months after that we opened up 120 seats to the public, and the waitlist last night at the start of dinner had 250 names on it. While I knew this dinner was going to be a success, I had no idea the overwhelming support we would receive from the community.
The goal was to host an evening so full of hospitality that the lack of spirits would go unnoticed. Well, we did that. But we did more than that. Along with our friends and guest chefs Andrew Zimmern, Jeremy Kean of Brassica Kitchen + Cafe, Bill Weiss of Island Creek Oysters, Pastry Chef Alyssa Lieberman and Lindsay Tierney of New City Microcreamery, we opened up our doors to people who craved this conversation - the one of inclusivity. The one that says: regardless of who you are, where you’re from, what the winding road of life has put in your path, or how you handled it doesn’t matter, today you are welcome here. Because what is hospitality, if not inviting every human to the table, and making sure they feel at home.
We had guests come from as far as Georgia to dine with us last night, and they were thrilled that they made the trip. The food was exceptional. This group of chefs have been cooking for a lot longer than they have been sober, and this dinner was immensely important to each of them. That being said, we knew the food was going to be good. Elliott had a clear (and present) idea of the level that the beverage pairings needed to reach. We’ve all had those mocktails, the ones that are too sweet, too acidic, too basic, and that was not going to be what we put up next to our food. We looked to the Zero Proof Dinner at Feast Portland for inspiration, the one event that had been done like this before had impeccable pairings. Toro GM Cameron Lewin and JK Beverage Director Jodie Battles challenged the Toro bar team with the task, and they rose eloquently to the occasion. They worked for months on these drinks, from concept through many iterations, to a final product. Finally last night, at a dinner with no spirits, the entire room was buzzing about how delicious the drinks were.
When you think about wine pairings, it’s often stated that you want to choose a grape that will stand up to the course. This is because the food will likely “blow out your palate” as the chefs say, because it is so jam packed with flavor. The wine, or zero proof cocktail in our case, needs to have enough flavor that it can been tasted over the many layers of ingredients and spices in the food. Last night, the drinks stood up to the food.
A very crisp pear, galangal, and quince on the rocks by David Jiminez completed the fall freshness for the first course alongside Bill Weiss’s Bluefin tuna, pumpkin ponzu, and cranberry tapenade. Then a dynamic pineapple, coffee, and coconut beauty created by Luis Palacios and Emma Hubbard, elevated the spicy asian flavors of Andrew Zimmern’s sesame peanut noodles, crispy crab rolls, and braised pork ribs. A lovely earl grey kombucha house-made by Morgan Collier and Rob Dunn was topped with sparkling apple cider and perfectly complemented Jeremy Kean’s funk forward koji risotto, aged-chili peekytoe crab, and blue cheese curry steam buns - and changed more than one person’s concept of kombucha. Next, a celery spritz absolutely rounded out Josh Elliott’s vision of an upscale Katz’s deli visit with his 10-day pastrami-style short rib, half sour pickles, and beets with mustard and rye. The evening finished on a luxurious note with a layered, warm, sweet potato, maple, and serrano ham consomme by Greg Coote to go with New City Microcreamery’s milk chocolate foie gras ice cream, and Brassica’s dark chocolate ganache koji donut. They all knocked it out of the park.
Andrew Zimmern spent the entire evening working a station on the Toro hotline, cooking, expediting, laughing and enjoying this special service with the rest of the kitchen crew, apart from pausing to add a sense of place and perspective. There was a combined 50 years of sobriety in the room, before a single guest walked through the door. However, instead of mentioning that or telling the tale of his own path to sobriety, he took the time to speak about how the restaurant industry is the most inclusive to rehabilitated people transitioning from prison, or homelessness, or elsewhere, back into society where they belong. He spoke to the character of Jamie and Ken, who are always the first people to say yes when he asks them to participate in a fundraiser for his charities of choice, and he thanked Elliott for architecting this dinner at this very important turning point in the hospitality industry.
These teams, the ones from Toro and Brassica and Island Creek Oysters and New City Microcreamery, and the people who own and operate those businesses and supported this dinner, they are not just good at what they do, they are good humans. I was told no less than twenty times last night by guests and staff alike how grateful they were to be present, and clear.
It was my pleasure to watch these chefs do what they love, without the encumbrance of alcohol in the space. They were having such a good time celebrating, in fact, that without being asked, they unanimously decided there will be a Clear and Present Dinner 2020. And I cannot wait.
So stay tuned, and until then, enjoy these photos by the talented Janice Checchio of the first annual Clear and Present Dinner.