Chef Rafih Benjelloun and his wife, Rita, of Imperial Fez in Atlanta prepared a plate of Moroccan specialties at the benefit Sunday night.

Party with a purpose

A star-studded night of dining
memorializes the loss
of a father and son

This was an event with a capital E, showcasing an international collection of chefs, some with celebrity power as great as the movie stars who frequent their restaurants. They brought with them the exotic flavors of Morocco, Mexico, India, Japan, Tasmania ...

But it was one unpretentious dish that carried the spirit of the night. The chefs of the Sheraton Waikiki were serving mahimahi, seasoned with kukui nuts, topped with garlic cream. It was a dish created by Tom Matsuda, executive sous-chef at the Sheraton who was killed by a deranged employee in December 2000.

Curtis Ogata, who worked with Matsuda for 18 years and took over his position, searched the files of his co-worker and friend to find a recipe that spoke to his cooking style, that would represent him well on this night of stars.

It was, after all, Matsuda's night. His and his son Warren's.

Warren Matsuda died just two years after his father, in a fall from a Makapuu cliff while fishing. He'd been a senior member of the service staff at Roy's Hawaii Kai, and so it was at that restaurant that the idea for Sunday night's charity gala at Kapiolani Community College was born.

Lee Hefter made miso-sesame cones to be filled with ahi tartare.

Chef Roy Yamaguchi decided to mark the 15th anniversary of his flagship restaurant with a memorial to the father and son, a celebration of their lives that would raise start-up cash for a scholarship fund in their names.

And so, although it was born of a double tragedy, this was a party.

Nobu Matsuhisa was there, signing autographs, smiling for group photographs and personally handing out his Ahi Tuna New Style Sashimi (with Matsuhisa Dressing). Lee Hefter was there, serving ahi tartare in a crisp cone made of sesame seeds and miso, something you might get when dining among the movie stars at Spago Beverly Hills. Alessandro Stratta was there, with little bundles of quail and foie gras in the style of his fine French restaurant, Renoir, in Las Vegas' Mirage hotel and casino.

More than 1,000 people were wined and dined in a manner to which we are somewhat unaccustomed in Hawaii. Yes, we do have ritzy dining events, and yes, superstar chefs do visit often, and yes, we have our own culinary celebs (Yamaguchi is no slouch, for example). But, no, it's pretty much unprecedented to have so many of such high caliber, in one place, on one night, serving so many.

Nobu Matsuhisa signed an autograph for Jasmine Apana.

In all, 15 guest chefs took up stations around the KCC's lawn. Nine more from various Roy's restaurants shared another tent, and the Sheraton maintained a separate station. Winemakers came from as far away as Germany to personally pour their wines.

It took months of planning, mostly by Roy's Hawaii corporate chef Jackie Lau, to get all the ingredients and equipment in place.

The mishaps were few, but scary. Federal Express lost chef Floyd Cardoz's tomatoes and fennel, meant for a chilled soup reflecting the Indian flavors of his restaurant, Tabla, in New York. "They said they could deliver it Monday," Cardoz said. Day late, several dollars short.

So Lau had a few hours to locate 75 pounds of organic tomatoes and 22 pounds of organic fennel. They had to settle for nonorganic fennel.

UPS was unable to deliver chef Stephan Pyles' box of roasted peppers, kalamata olives, pickled onions and chili purée because of a leak in one of the containers. "His box is probably smelling away in some warehouse somewhere," Lau said.

Rick Tramanto of Tru in Chicago prepared an airy lobster "foam."

But Pyles, of Dragonfly in Dallas, said he'd been through worse. "I have lost sometimes six and eight boxes." Four hours of intense prep work on Saturday with substitute ingredients and the damage was undone.

It helped, Pyles said, that a white-clad army in chef coats was available to help. Lau had 150 volunteers in the KCC kitchens, a mix of professionals, culinary instructors and cooking students from the community colleges and high schools.

Among their tasks: chopping 100 pounds of onions for the aforementioned Matsuhisa Dressing, a tear-inducing proposition. Ian Risely, chef-instructor for Leeward Community College, visited his students at work. "I said, 'Girls, you look like you all lost your boyfriends.'"

Better entertained were the volunteers assigned to Rafih Benjelloun of Imperial Fez in Atlanta, who embodies a total-body, total-world culinary view. He was as likely to launch into a history of cinnamon -- "Everything comes from China!" -- as he was to explain B'Stella, his Moroccan pastry stuffed with quail, eggs and almonds.

"Watercress is the best thing for your hormones, for your glands," he said as he poured out a reduction of watercress stems that would be part of another dish. Then he slurped down all the leftover liquid straight out of the pan.

A chilled soup of tomatoes and fennel was created by Floyd Cardoz of Tabla in New York.

A couple of hours before kickoff, another mishap: Thieves broke into several cars in the KCC parking lot, among them the rental belonging to Ron Seigel of Masa's in San Francisco.

Inventorying his losses, Seigel pointed to his assistant, working away in denim shorts. "Well, his pants and about 500 business cards. So that's all right, as long as they pass out the cards." Pause. "I'd like to get his pants back, though."

In the end, it was quite party. But it wouldn't do to lose sight of the point. The event raised about $100,000 for the Tom and Warren Matsuda Scholarship Fund for culinary students.

Colleen Matsuda, Tom's wife and Warren's mother, said the two would have been comfortable at an event like Sunday's, although they'd have been working it, not sitting still. They also would have appreciated the scholarship fund.

In a quiet moment before the crowd of 1,000 came through the gates, host chef Roy Yamaguchi, above, reflected on the 15-year anniversary of his restaurant chain.

Had they been able to attend, she said, "They probably would've thought, 'Us?' But I think they would be really, really happy."

What's next, after an event like this? Testuya Wakuda, the acclaimed chef of Tetsuya's in Australia, said the four Japanese chefs at Sunday's event already have a plan.

The night before, they came up with the idea of a small charity dinner at Roy's Hawaii Kai, perhaps in October. The marquee: Testuya, Nobu, Roy and Yuji Wakiya, of Turandot in Tokyo.

The details have yet to be decided, but they made a pact, he said: "Have a drink and shake hands."

Personally, he's looking forward to cooking with local fish (for this event, he brought 200 pounds of ocean trout from Tasmania). Cooking for 100 instead of 1,000, he said, they could really show their stuff.

Save your money.

Richard Sandoval of Maya in New York prepared a tuna ceviche, using all Hawaii products. He said he was very happy with the quality of the produce, "considering they were all Mexican ingredients."

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