News & Politics

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

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.