You know what they say about the best-laid plans. When I got involved in the planning stages of Les Dames D’escoffier’s Green Tables Summer Supper, an annual fundraiser for an organization I’m part of, no one could have predicted the historic windstorm we would have to deal with. August in the Pacific Northwest is about as reliably sunny and beautiful as anywhere on the globe. We get our wind and our rain alright, just not in August.
This year’s Summer Supper was an elegant outdoor tour of Washington’s Skagit Valley, a place with some of the best soil in the country and one of the state’s premier growing regions. We wanted to show off a variety of the great foods that grow in the region. Guests were invited to tour the Taylor Shellfish Farm at 12:30 in the afternoon. The next stop was Hedlin Farms, a 100-year old farm comprised of 300 acres of seed crops that ship around the world, 40 acres of organically grown produce, and 2 acres of hothouses lined with beautiful heirloom tomatoes and peppers. From there everyone moved to La Conner Flats, a scenic farm with 11 acres of breathtaking European display gardens. The capstone to the day was a dinner al fresco featuring Skagit Valley ingredients at Cathy Conner’s 1890’s home on Fir Island, prepared by several Les Dames d’Escoffier’s chefs, including myself.
Four days before the event we were very nervous about rain. Just rain, not the unbelievable winds that the tropical storm heading our way from Hawaii would bring. Cathy Conner borrowed six tents to provide cover for the dining guests. Set for rain, should it happen, we procured the best local foods and wines, we chopped, marinated, and baked. The sold-out event had to go well. It’s a really important fundraiser for Green Tables and provides grants to support teaching and training students to cook seasonally healthy foods and garden-to-table concepts.
As guests began to show up at Taylor Shellfish, the fierce wind howled off the hills, gusts reaching over 50 miles per hour. (I would learn later that we experienced record high winds for the month of August.) The tide was out and guests walked right out to the oyster fields to look at geoducks and baby oysters in various stages of development. With seriously wind-blown hair, guests finished their visit with a delicious tasting of Shigoku oysters paired with a crisp white wine from La Conner’s Hellam’s Wine Cellar. So far so good, but I sure worried about those tents.
On our drive over to Hedlin Farms, the second stop, we saw many trees and branches down. Dave Hedlin and Serena Campbell have been farming the family land since 1974, the fourth generation to do so. Serena gave a gracious tour, explaining why the soil is so good for growing organic seed crops. The farm produces the bulk of the cabbage seeds for the kimchi market in Korea. Plump large heirloom tomatoes filled their hoop houses. Cherry tomatoes tasted like candy picked right off the vine. During high season, they pick half a ton of tomatoes every day.
In between snacking on the tomatoes and enjoying the scenery of the farm, I learned the power had gone out. I conferred with the kitchen crew. We’d prepped really well, but we still had a lot of cooking to do, heating up sauces, sautéing spinach and gnocchi, roasting the potato gratin, and so forth. With all the trees down we couldn’t count on the power coming back anytime soon. We’d all planned on going to each stop but leaving the last stop before dinner a little early. Scratch that. We needed more time to deal with the unknown. A bunch of us made a beeline for Cathy’s house to see what we were up against. Stressful as it was, I never doubted we’d figure it out, somehow. One thing you learn working in a busy kitchen is to expect the unexpected. You hone your improvisational skills and make the best of what you’ve got.
The group moved on to La Conner Flats, a smaller family-run farm, with beautiful gardens that, I hear, got a little roughed up by the winds. The farm would be a perfect venue for a wedding, with its beautiful broad lawn filled with different varieties of pear and apple trees, and at the back a gazebo surrounded by circled rows of different colored roses. Amongst many other crops, they grow delicate teeny-tiny cucumbers, all of which are reserved for Canlis restaurant. It was at this farm that the Seattle Culinary Academy created the farmer/student partnership that Les Dames d’Escoffier made possible. The guests enjoyed wine from Hellam’s Wine Cellar in La Conner and local cheese while touring the gardens.
Meanwhile, back at Cathy Conner’s house, we surveyed the damage. The wind had blown the tents many feet from where we’d set them up. And there was no power. Fortunately, we had several grills, and the stove top was gas. A team worked on fixing the tents and readying candles while the rest of us tackled the food. As we were lighting the grills, the winds began to die down, thankfully. Between the grills and the gas burners in the house, we were able to do most things. The challenge was the potato gratin that needed to bake for 45 minutes. We improvised. Grilled gratin it would be. After starting it, we moved it to the grill’s warming rack. While we couldn’t caramelize the top, it cooked beautifully.
The candles cast a beautiful light on the tables. It would be a lovely setting. But without any electricity we would have to be sure we got everyone back to their cars before the daylight vanished. Out in the country it gets very dark. We would have to stay on a tight schedule. Everyone worked together and we stayed on pace.
The guests arrived on time and in good spirits, despite the wild weather. Cathy’s home, barn, and gardens are absolutely stunning. The guests were led on tours by the women of Les Dames while enjoying a summer berry vodka spritzer and passed appetizers. Mother nature had whipped up quite a storm, but it wasn’t going to stop us. We seated everyone for a starter of homemade gnocchi and grilled spot prawns, followed by an entree of sockeye salmon and a chimichurri spiced lamb chop, and finally an apple crostata with my quince caramel and Cathy’s soft cream. Exhausted, but exhilarated, I gave my best heartfelt thanks to everyone, while holding a candle that kept blowing out. It had been a fantastic day. Everyone had a great time. The rain even held off until just after the last guest made it to their car.
Leslie Mackie opened Macrina Bakery in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood in 1993. Leslie has been an active and devoted member of the Seattle chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier since 1992. She finds her work with the Dames to be a wonderful source of mentorship, camaraderie and resource sharing.
To find out more information about the Les Dames d’Escoffier Green Tables programs, click here.