Around The World Dinner
It’s no secret that I have a heart for Rwanda, Africa. Last February I visited for my second time, and was introduced to Hope Haven, a school in rural Kigali where over 400 children have the privilege of being educated. I stayed at the school for nearly a week, teaching cooking to the kitchen staff and some of the parents of the students. I was invited to their annual fundraiser event held in Denver last April, where I offered to donate a dinner party for eight people to be prepared in the home of Hope Haven’s founder, Susan Hollern. Five hundred people attended the event at the Wildlife Museum in Denver, and I was stunned when the bidding for my dinner went to $16,000! I agreed to cook the dinner twice, so the total raised from my two dinners was $32,000! That thrilled me since I knew that kind of money would be so beneficial for Hope Haven and the children that are hugely impacted there.
The first of the two dinners was scheduled for October, and I offered the winning bidders the opportunity to invite more guests. Fourteen guests were invited, with one couple bringing an infant. I arrived in Denver three days before the dinner in order to start my preparations (although I prepared my menu for weeks ahead). I decided to cook a seven-course dinner with an “Around the World” theme, based on seven different countries where I have traveled. I had special menu booklets designed for each person, and a generous wine collector donated nine different wines to pair with the appetizers and seven courses.
The first day in Denver, I got acquainted with Susan’s kitchen and began sourcing my ingredients. I took many of my own spices and a few tools, but Susan’s kitchen was well-stocked and ready for me to take over.
By the end of day two, I had stuffed two of her refrigerators full, and the countertop was piled with potatoes, tomatoes, beans, olive oils, and other necessary ingredients. Susan had found a young man who had gone to culinary school to assist me with preparations, so we chopped for hours and made the soup, curry, chocolate tarts, causas, and risotto balls on Thursday, the day before the event. Susan carefully set the table with her beautiful china, crystal, and silver, and I arranged flowers for the centerpieces. Since I was serving seven courses, I planned how each would be plated, and how we would wash certain dishes after they were used, in order to be plated for another course. Fortunately, I had six people to help me plate and serve, including my son and his girlfriend who drove two hours to assist me. A professional photographer was hired to capture the entire evening in beautiful photos, and I must say, the evening could not have gone more perfectly.
As people arrived they were served potato causas on appetizer spoons. It’s a Peruvian dish that is layered mashed potatoes flavored with chile puree and layered with avocado and shrimp. The second appetizer was Sicilian arancini, fried risotto balls filled with cheese.
After an hour of sipping Champagne and visiting on the veranda overlooking the beautiful mountain views, everyone sat down at the dining table to eat the first course, a salad inspired by the Caribbean. I had grilled fresh pineapple that was basted with vanilla paste and served in a green salad with other tropical fruits and almonds. The second course was inspired by Rwanda and the cooking experience I had in February when I taught the cooks to make pumpkin and sweet potato soup from the gardens at the school. For this dinner I garnished the soup with pepitas roasted with Rwandan coffee.
The third course was inspired by Peru, and was my award-winning dish from a competition in Tulsa last spring. Vegetable ceviche with tiger milk was the most labor-intensive dish of the night because of all the ingredients that were carefully chopped to the perfect size and fit into lovely crystal cocktail glasses. The tiger milk, which is coconut milk, cilantro, and other flavors, is poured over the top and garnished with toasted corn and quinoa. Many people said it was their favorite course of the night.
The fourth course, inspired by my travels in India, was chickpea curry over basmati rice with yogurt raita dolloped on top. I toast and grind my own spices when I cook Indian food, and this time was no different.
Course number five was inspired by my recent travel to Camogli, Italy where I purchased the pasta from a shop on the seafront and brought it back just for this event. I made fresh Genovese pesto with Sicilian pine nuts, and tossed it with the pasta, garnished with Pecorino cheese.
Course six was a Spanish plate with Colorado beef from Susan’s ranch. I grilled the tenderloins and sliced them into portions topped with Spanish blue cheese and cream sauce. I made a Romesco sauce made of blended roasted red peppers, almonds and smoked paprika to toss with sauteed shrimp that was served with poached fingerling potatoes in Spanish olive oil. Back in the kitchen my helpers and I were eating the blue cheese sauce with spoons because it was so good.
Finally, I served chocolate tarts inspired by France, which were made with two chocolates, liqueur, and a splash of Rwandan coffee. Lightly sweetened whipped creme fraiche, for the tarts, was the final garnish of the night.
I didn’t sleep well that night because of the excitement from feeling like I had really pulled off something I had never done before. I am a cooking teacher, and I’ve never cooked in a restaurant. I’ve cooked for many parties of my own and I’ve been hired to cook for many events, but this was different. These guests paid a lot of money, and entrusted me to provide not just a good meal, but an experience. Getting to use the knowledge I’ve gained from my travels was so exciting to me, and the ability to share it with these special people who love and support Hope Haven was a night I will never forget. I cannot wait to do it again!