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The First Chefs for Equality Event, Featuring Tim Gunn, Governor Martin O’Malley, and Dozens of Area Chefs (Photos)

The feast and party for 500 supporters of Maryland’s marriage equality initiative packed the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton West End.

Chefs Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore and Erik Bruner-Yang of Toki Underground in DC called this an “East meets West charcuterie board.” It was served to guests as the first course at one of the seated dinners for Chefs for Equality. Photograph by Jeff Martin.

At the Ritz-Carlton West End hotel last night, where the Human Rights Campaign hosted an extravagant food feast on behalf of marriage equality in Maryland, it was possible to sample all of these tastes in less than an hour: three kinds of oysters, three kinds of pâté, both chicken and cactus sopes, panna cotta made with foie gras, figs, pears, and almonds, beef cheeks, ceviche, deviled eggs, a perfectly fried quail egg perched on a slice of pork belly, and lasagna, plus a punch made with rye, ginger liqueur and apple cider. For the 500 individuals who paid upward of $150 to be there, the food and drink choices were seemingly endless, and in every direction there was one well known chef or another, as well as Maryland governor Martin O’Malley and Project Runway host Tim Gunn. Anyone who came without an appetite wasted the evening.

Organized by food writer David Hagedorn, Chefs for Equality, the first event of its kind, raised money to support the November 6 ballot referendum on a Maryland marriage equality law signed by O’Malley earlier this year. A spokeswoman said they hope to make it an annual occasion.

Maybe next year they’ll also have a tattoo station, because that was about the only restaurant trend not featured by the dozens of food stations and bars that represented approximately 75 area chefs and mixologists. There were also nine tables of eight where chef duos created a five-course menu. These tables were bid on earlier and went for from $3,600 up to $5,100. The chef duos included Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen with Erik Bruner-Yang of Toki Underground. Their first course, an elaborate and colorful four-foot first-course board of cheese, bread, radishes, meats, mousses, and breads that they called an “East meets West charcuterie,” was a work of art. Other teams were Ris Lacoste of Ris and Jamie Leeds of Hank’s Oyster Bar, Cedric Maupillier of Mintwood Place and Devin Bozkaya of Westend Bistro, Victor Albisu of Taco Bamba and Amy Brandwein of AmyB, and Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve and R.J. Cooper of Rogue 24.

We zeroed in on the team of Bryan Voltaggio of Volt and Central’s Michel Richard, who also owns the currently closed Citronelle, which shuttered last summer due to water and other structural problems in its Georgetown location, the Latham Hotel. We wanted to know more from Richard about reports that he would reopen Citronelle in June. “It is true,” he said. Some had thought the hotel might have to be torn down, but he said the work can be done on the inside and the building can remain intact. He plans to do a redesign of the dining room and the bar, but his $1 million kitchen will stay as it is. “The kitchen is fine,” he said. “It had no problems.” We asked how confident he was of a June opening. “Who knows,” he said, which is probably the most accurate approach to any renovation project.

The seated dining tables were sequestered in one quarter of the large ballroom, while the food stations and an ebullient, partying crowd filled the other three quarters. The dinner guests had to cope with the din but seemed not to mind. Each table featured unique decorations and flowers and guests received swag, usually cookbooks, as gifts from the chefs. The guest list for the seated dinners included two people from the White House, Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard and Visitors Office director Ellie Schafer. Bernard sat beside HRC president Chad Griffin. In the middle of the vast room was a deejay, spinning madly; his raised platform was surrounded by bars, where mixologists shook their cocktail shakers to the beat of the music.

It was a party for DC food people. Ellen Gray of Equinox never stopped hugging and visiting with friends. Ashok Bajaj, whose Bibiana and Rasika restaurants were represented, sat on the stage and listened closely to an animated Mark Furstenberg, the noted baker whose new project is called Bread Furst. Mike Isabella, owner of Graffiato and Bandolero, was not manning a food station. Instead he toured the room with his wife, Stacy, and admired Todd Thrasher’s handiwork as the mixologist made them a cocktail.

To their credit, when Gunn and Governor O’Malley arrived—Gunn about 45 minutes before O’Malley—they made themselves completely available to the guests. In the ballroom lobby they moved calmly through the crowd, smiling, chatting with anyone who wanted to talk, and posing amiably for photographs. That kind of equanimity is unusual from individuals who are the featured attractions at an event.

Gunn was eager to talk, and to point out that he’s a native of Washington and always happy to be back in town. But when asked to name his favorite local restaurant, he thought for a second and then said, “Maison Blanche, but I bet it’s closed.” (It is.) In its heyday in the 1980s, the formal French spot across the street from the White House was white-hot, the tables always filled with A-listers and White House officials. Gunn reminisced for a moment, and then, glancing into the packed ballroom, put his hands over his ears and mouthed, “It’s so loud!” He said he doubted he’d be able to taste the food in such a happy racket, but smiled gamely, checked his well-tailored blue pinstriped suit, and headed into the throng.

Gunn served as the evening’s master of ceremonies once the official program began about 90 minutes into the eating and drinking, making it a challenge to quiet the room. They did listen to speaker Susie Gelman, who said the issue of marriage equality in Maryland is “deeply personal” to her because “when my son wanted to marry his partner, he couldn’t in the state of Maryland. That’s why I’m working on this issue.” They applauded Griffin, when he proclaimed that with this event HRC was “putting an end to chicken dinners in this town.” He got serious, too. “We are finally in the home stretch of this election. We can’t let down. We have to make every phone call we can and knock on every door we can.” When he referred to O’Malley, he called him “our leader and hero.” The governor took the stage and said, “I’ve been to countless living room fundraisers, but this is the largest living room fundraiser I’ve been to for marriage equality.” He name-checked all the chefs and restaurants and then lobbied hard for the marriage equality vote on November 6.

The party rolled on until about 10:30, when it moved on to the after-party at Graffiato. The swag bag, sweetly (or dangerously, depending on one’s waistline), included a number of sweets.

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