While the Justice League of America might just be a fantasy cooked up by DC Comics, Chef Vincent Vanhecke has managed to stir up Santa Barbara’s culinary equivalent for a May 26 fundraiser to benefit Noah’s Anchorage, a shelter for homeless teens. Fifteen of the area’s best chefs will join him in creating a memorable five-course meal. “As far as us having so many chefs, I’m totally responsible; blame me,” said Vanhecke, chef for the Valley Club of Montecito. “In the past, we had four or five chefs, and every chef had a course, and that’s always been quite popular. This time, we’re doing things a little bit differently, involving more chefs working in teams to show the community support behind Noah’s Anchorage.”
Including both tenured chefs and younger stars, this league of chefs is a “great group of talent,” said Vanhecke. “That was the reasoning behind it—the more the merrier. Let’s just work together for a good cause, do our stuff, and have some fun doing it.” The super-chef heroes are Mari Bartoli (private chef), Randy Bublitz (SBCC culinary program), Alex Castillo (El Paseo), John Downey (Downey’s), Christine Dahl (Christine Dahl Pastries), Brandon Hughes (bouchon), Michael Hutchings (Michael’s Catering), Brian Parks (Coast), John Pettitt (Seagrass), Charlie Rushton (private chef), Don Skipworth (private chef), James Sly (Sly’s), David Sundeen (Wine Cask), John Trotta (San Ysidro Ranch), and Eric Widmer (La Cumbre Country Club).
Aside from assembling the crew, Vanhecke’s also in charge of menu-planning logistics. “I get suggestions from all these chefs and stir things in the right direction to prevent duplication and make the menu a cohesive one,” he said. “It will be four passed hors d’oeuvres and then a four-course, sit-down menu. It’s an example of how many fingers can you get in the pie as opposed to too many fingers in the pie.”
One part of that gourmet “pie” will be a first-course trio of salmon made by a team of Downey, Castillo, and Bublitz. “How much competition will there be on that plate?” asked Vanhecke. “Will there be one favorite, or will the whole combination be great? I don’t think there are many events in town where all the chefs come together and cook as a team. That’s where it can be interesting.”
It didn’t take much for the YMCA to get Vanhecke interested in this benefit for Noah’s Anchorage, which he’s supported for 10 years. “From my perspective, it touches pretty close to home,” he explained. “I had a little bit of a difficult childhood, with being brought up by my dad, who wasn’t the most pleasant of people. As a teenager, I’d find myself almost in the situation of those Noah’s Anchorage kids. My dad was a pretty violent guy, and as a teenager, I didn’t have any resources or recourses. To have something like Noah’s Anchorage is a pretty cool day for any teenager who finds himself in a situation that’s kind of tricky.”
Vanhecke, born in Belgium, lived for two years in Singapore (his father was in the Belgian government) but mostly grew up in England. He finally escaped his father’s wrath and found his calling at the same time. “What ended up being my Noah’s Anchorage was me becoming an apprentice in this business,” he said. “In France, it’s typically a very rigorous, very strenuous process. You’re usually the first in and the first out of the kitchen. But you’re fed and housed and, at 17, that first restaurant became my shelter.”
Vanhecke remained in France for five years, then headed to England to work in restaurants, clubs, and hotels, and eventually came to the States in 1992, originally working on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “At the end of 1993, I got the executive chef position at El Encanto and was there for six years,” he explained, adding slyly, “I was the longest chef to work there without being fired; I hold that record.” He’s been executive chef at the Valley Club since 1999.
And now, for one night only, he gets to be the mastermind behind as talented a bunch of chefs as this city has ever seen in one kitchen.
Chow down with Santa Barbara’s most stellar chefs at the YMCA Youth and Family Services Reaching for the Stars fundraiser dinner to support Noah’s Anchorage (www.ciymca.org/youthandfamilyservices/YouthFamilyServices-NoahsAnchorage.html ) on Wednesday, May 26, at the Rockwood Woman’s Club. The $175 tickets can be purchased by calling 569-1103 x32.