The good news is that after about the 30th fresh-from-the-frying-pan abalone, your fingers-which burn despite the sanitary gloves-sort of go numb. That’s fortunate, because with 200 plates to fill, there are another 370 or so medallions ready to be delicately yet speedily placed upon gorgeously whorled abalone shells and treated with a rich sauce of caramelized mango and roasted hazelnut. But physical pain is the least of your concerns, because on the other side of some temporary walls, men in black ties and women in gowns more expensive than all your clothes expect the meal of their lives.
What doesn’t hurt anyone is that the setting is La Cuesta Encantada, William Randolph Hearst’s not-used-often-enough name for what’s now known simply as Hearst Castle. Upon this Enchanted Hill, you-and yes, I’m talking about myself-are a volunteer at the KCBX Wine Classic’s (centralcoastwineclassic.org) premier event. I was offered the chance to be part of the kitchen crew this year thanks to James Sly, who, it turns out, isn’t just a brilliant chef (head to Sly’s in Carp at once!) but someone who can juggle six other acclaimed chefs and at least 50 volunteers in a substantial yet impermanent kitchen and still crank out a meal fit for folks who have forked over $1,250 for the privilege.
But going all George Plimpton in the kitchen was a bit unnerving, I must admit. You see, I had never had any restaurant experience, not even as a measly teen for corp-o-burger. Riding the bus up the hill, veteran volunteers teased about the many Advil they’d downed, the chiropractor appointments they pre-booked. I hoped they teased, as visions of the worst of Gordon Ramsay rants and Top Chef disasters flashed in my head. Once onsite, James Sly welcomed everyone but also looked around the yet-to-be-filled room and joked, “What if they had a dinner and nobody came?” It was past 3 p.m. and dinner proper-after a no doubt grueling session for the guests of Cristal and passed hors d’oeuvres such as a deconstructed Ni§oise salad on a silver spoon or a brilliant bite of foie gras-would be at 7:15 p.m. Only one other chef, the talented creator of those appetizers, Michael Hutchings, was at work.
Soon the rest drifted in: Frank Ostini from the Hitching Post, with his own grill and oak in the back of the pickup; Ian McPhee of McPhee’s Grill, with enough filet of beef to feed the crowd all weekend; Michel Richard, utterly, charmingly French and oozing star quality. Wilhelm Hoppe finally arrived, not just with his abalone but with the owner of the Abalone Farm in Cayucos, where the shellfish were cultivated. And soon Cal Stamenov, from the Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley, was working on his cherry-pistachio mousse with meringue and other gorgeous delicious bells and whistles, such as a caramel sauce so good people ate what remained straight out of the pastry bag long after service was over.
But I get ahead of myself, and that’s not something the coolly coordinating James Sly ever let happen. In fact, things tended to be so together in the kitchen that there were even moments we could peek at what it was like on the other side of the wall. Yes, people dressed to the nines clutching champagne stems around the Neptune Pool looks like a glimpse of the castle’s storied past. Yes, the sun setting into the Pacific turned the sky into a Maxfield Parrish painting. Yes, when you match an epic meal with 13 wines from the pick of Central Coast wineries, some event-goers get a bit tipsy.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, we learned the trick to squeeze Richard’s tomato tartar out of its plastic molds to center his chilled tomato soup, and learned, with his coaching, to keep our thumbs out of the dish. Somehow, being scolded by someone with a French accent seems a necessary kitchen rite of passage. We learned that to plate Ostini’s smoked duck breast you only use the center three cuts. That made us all rich with duck leftovers after the course went out. (Okay, we got lots of leftovers of every course, plus a staff meal. You have to sustain yourself when you’re on your feet for an eight-hour shift.)
Somewhere between the duck and the beef filet, Chef Sly asked me, “So, do you want to work in a restaurant now?” And while the evening was exhausting, it was thrilling, too, being part of kitchen lines cranking out plate after gorgeous plate of food. It helped that no one threw a chef-ly tantrum; indeed, egos were so far in check you’d think they got left at the bottom of the hill. Or perhaps even the incredibly talented can’t help but be a bit awed, in the shadow of La Casa Grande, looking part like a mission, part like Hollywood, and therefore the emblem of the Church of California at which so many worship.