Kevin Finch isn’t just another star-struck foodie looking for the next great dinner, but he doesn’t shy away from admitting that he likes a good meal and glass of wine from trendy restaurants. His focus is as much about the food as it is about the people who make the food for him – and for the thousands of us who flock to restaurants, cafes, delis, and small eateries on a daily basis.
The National Restaurant Association reports that the restaurant industry employs 13 million people and 1.3 million more are expected to become employed in food service by 2020. With such a large population working mostly on nights and weekends, Finch began wondering to himself about the lives these people live. If you ask many food service professionals, they will describe their jobs as personally rewarding yet stressful and difficult on families, due to the schedule and the demanding nature of the work. Chef Hal Decker, Executive Chef for Master’s Touch Kitchen, explained that a chef must be able to motivate his staff, prepare safe and delicious food, maintain the books, make money, and create a welcoming environment for his customers simultaneously. This fast-burning pace is exactly what Finch recognized when he got to know the food industry. His solution: support the service people who work to bring you good food and drink.
was founded in order to “support and care for those working in the restaurant and hospitality industry.” Finch cites the long, grueling hours, sometimes skimpy pay, and the potential for drug and alcohol abuse as reasons that the industry is so tough for many. In response, he wants non-food industry people to become aware of and be more supportive to food industry people. He suggests giving bigger tips, doing something nice for the hospitality staff, and participating in Big Table dinners. Big Table dinners gather leaders and workers in the food and hospitality industry and spoils them.
Finch’s focus is to build a community around the food and veverage industry and seeks to build relationship and support for its employees. He achieves this by inviting individuals to join him for a dinner, free of charge for them, and by asking others to prepare meals for them. The result is a robust and enjoyable dinner highlighting some of the most talented chefs and honoring those who love food and who serve food and beverages to the rest of us.
We joined the dinner on June 7th this year, and it was a great time for all. We sat next to and near some of the biggest faces and humblest members of the food industry. We were joined by other food and hospitality experts and by patrons of fine food. We talked about trend-setting foods, great places to dine, and our admiration of Kevin’s vision. We exchanged emails, tasted wine, and oooohed and aaaaahed at Cafe Marron’s Chef Nicholas St. Clair and Sysco Executive Chef Alexa Wilson’s creativity and accurate execution of five incredible courses.
The Purple Turtle of Spokane
hosted the meal, and the owners, Brad and Sara Greene, were gracious and friendly. This marketing-office-turned-dinner-venue has played host to several Big Table dinners, and the decor was simple and very elegant. The room was long and large, totaling 3000 square feet. Four 52-inch flat screens displayed pictures of the previous dinners, and the opposite wall shelves housed Reasons Wines, which had been donated by Dr. Arne Michalson for the dinner. Talented yet subtle photographer Angela Parri
s snapped photos and captured the mood of the night. Flitting in and out of the gathering diners were volunteer staff comprised of individuals who dined at previous dinners and who shared the Big Table vision.
Our dinner opened with a social time where Reasons Wines were poured generously and frequently. We were then ushered to an extremely long table made of several tables placed end on end. The result was a large gathering of pockets of intimate dinner conversation.
Shortly after being seated and refreshing our glasses, the first course was brought out. Spinach and Feta Cheese “Cigars” with Sweet Tomato Ice were placed before us. Slightly crunchy on the surface, the filo wrapped cigar revealed its rich, creamy spinach and feta filling when the cigar was cut. The balanced saltiness of feta countered the sweet, tangy tomato ice, and I was tempted to lick the plate when eyes were averted.
The second course featured a generous Roasted Mushroom Salad, Chevre Truffle, and Kalamata Olive Vinaigrette. This meaty, citrus bright salad complemented the Cabernet Sauvignon that Dr. Michalson shared, bringing out a subtle fruitiness.
The peppery arugula and greens countered the creamy chevre truffle, and I found myself spreading out the chevre onto every morsel of salad I could. The meaty mushrooms were firm enough to stand alone, but when swirled in the Kalamata olive vinaigrette, they took on an earthy depth that made me wish there were more.
The third course presented a Seared Halibut Cheek with Manila Clams, Chorizo and Saffron Vinaigrette and a citronette broth. This palate cleansing dish was a beautiful contrast to the meaty salad, and the tender, moist halibut, so creamy and smooth on the tongue, contrasted with the salty clams as confidently as the citronette sauce’s astringency highlighted the peppery, robust chorizo. John Allen, owner of Vino! wine shop in Spokane, invited us to pair this course with a Bordeaux that he had brought along. The deep red wine brought out the crisp sweetness of the carrots that had been previously outshone by the halibut, and the latter’s buttery nature was enhanced by the fullness of the wine. Slivered fennel rounded out the dish in a crisp, fresh licorice that spoke of more to come.
At this point, we thought our palates had been thoroughly stimulated. Then, Chefs Nicholas and Alexa pulled out the stops. Guajillo Chile Grilled Rack of Lamb with Tomato Bread Pudding, Red Pepper Jelly, and Pistachios and Mole Sauce became our fourth course. The generously portioned lamb was seared evenly and expertly. The dish was stacked so high that only a side view showed the stratified tomato bread pudding. Cilantro and orange oil were incorporated into the dish, but their flavors were so subtle that you would be hard-pressed to identify them. At the same time, their absence would have left a gaping hole in the taste experience. My table mates alternated between dipping their bites of lamb in the mole sauce and red pepper jelly, and for each vote for one, another countered. It was a draw among the table as to which sauce reigned supreme.
The Bordeaux muted the lamb, which seemed counter-intuitive, but the flavors of lightly spicy chile were enhanced by the Cabernet Sauvignon and by Mitch Townsend’s contribution of 1975 Chateaux St. Michele Cabernet Sauvignon. Speaking of which, that was the first time we’d enjoyed wine that was older than we were, and the sediment that results from an aged wine makes it taste more like a rich, dark espresso than a fruit-filled wine. The heavy sediment, which rested at the bottom of your glass, contributed to the rich, earthy flavors conjured by the lamb when paired with the pistachio mole, and we found ourselves attempting to soak up every drop of the sauce with the last bites of lamb.
As we wrapped up our dinner and exclaimed our pleasure of the dishes and marveled at the creative genius of the chefs, Kevin paused a moment to discuss the mission of Big Table. He highlighted the generosity of the staff and the donations of different businesses. He also emphasized that the purpose of Big Table is to support and applaud the men and women who spend much of their lives in the background, making it possible for us to enjoy our weekends out of the home and kitchen. He also invited us to recommend one (or more) friends who may need a little helping hand at this financially trying time. It was an excellent way to ground this incredible dinner in the reality of the service industry and in the mission of Big Table.
The literal cherry on the top for the evening was the dessert. I had heard hints about an incredible smoked vanilla ice cream, but I had no idea what I was in for. The Cherry Wood Smoked Vanilla Ice Cream with Almond Frangipane Napoleon and Cabernet Poached Cherries was something from a dream. As someone who has only had smoked meats, fish, and cheese, vanilla ice cream blew my mind. Chef Nicholas explained that he smoked the cream first, and then he made the ice cream. The result is a cherry smoked ice cream that makes you think of savory meats but your tongue is telling you about the creamy sweetness of natural vanilla ice cream. The almond frangipane (creamy filling or custard) was sweet and nutty, and the crispy puff pastry was a perfect foil to the velvety vanilla ice cream. The garnish was the most creative element of the dish: a smoking cinnamon stick that was reminiscent of incense, filling your nostrils with toasted cinnamon.
Dining at the latest Big Table event was a fun, foodie way to kick off the summer. While the focus was on the gourmet food, the underlying purpose to build community around food and hospitality professionals was not lost. The sense of unity of purpose and love for food made the event distinctive from other fine dining experiences, but no short cuts or cheap changing was taken with the food, the wine, or the venue. A truly memorable event like this must be shared with you. If you would like to support the Big Table and find out more about ways to get involved – or maybe even dine or host a dinner – please contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also use the links listed in the text to get information about the businesses supporting the events. Look soon for the Reasons Wines article and website.