"If a comet struck the building right now, Houston would be screwed."
A dark sentiment to be sure, but the anonymous speaker at Sunday's Culinary All-Stars dinner had a point. The epic fundraiser brought together so many of Houston's finest chefs for a sold-out, 10 course, family-style meal that if anything had happened the city's dining scene would have been devastated.
Priced at $300 per person, the meal raised almost $40,000 for Liz Fenton: a popular figure in Houston's culinary world who's suffering from a rare neurological disorder called transverse myelitis that has left her disabled. The money raised Sunday night and from a Go Fund Me page will help Fenton with expensive treatments and the loss of income she's sustained during her illness.
"I never would have understood Korean food without Liz," Underbelly chef/owner Chris Shepherd told the crowd. "It wouldn't have fucking happened." Considering Underbelly's signature dish is Korean braised goat and dumplings, that's about as high a compliment as the James Beard Award-winning Shepherd could have paid Fenton.
From there, the event set off a breakneck pace that saw all eight savory courses served in about 90 minutes. As attendees struggled to keep up with the avalanche of food that hit the tables, one clear sentiment emerged. Given the incredible diversity and high-level of execution, picking a favorite dish would be impossible. How does compare Kata Robata chef Manabu Horiuchi's expertly-cut, screamingly fresh sashimi with Hugo Ortega's banana leaf-wrapped lobster tamales or Coltivare chef Ryan Pera's citrus-infused roasted whole fish?
Other chefs served variations on their signature dishes such as Pax Americana chef Adam Dorris's smoked beef tartare, The Pass & Provisions chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan's cresto di gallo pasta with mushrooms and Ronnie Killen's smoked beef rib.
On a personal note, the only dish I reached for a second piece of was Shepherd's Korean fried chicken; the combination of the crispy crust, juicy meat and sweet and spicy glazed proved utterly delicious. Oxheart chef Justin Yu surprised the crowd with his kimchee and cheese stew. Spicy may not be an adjective typically used to describe Yu's cuisine, but the stew's broth delivered serious heat that the suggested pairing of Saint Arnold Endeavour IPA helped tame.
Oxheart baker Karen Man supplied monkey bread and focaccia. Former Uchi chef Philip Speer and Fluff Bake Bar owner Rebecca Masson proved there's always room for dessert with Speer's curried sweet potato and Masson's pistachio cake.
Measuring by the star power of the chef's involved and the dollars raised, Underbelly's Southern Smoke event in October had the higher profile than Sunday night's dinner. Still, the impressive collection of talent, the warm feeling that pervaded every aspect of the meal and holiday spirit that moved people to make such a generous contribution on behalf of a woman that's likely a stranger to many of the attendees made the Culinary All-Stars a meal that won't be forgotten.
As Fenton said in some brief, emotional remarks, "I can't wait to have this again next year."