October 24, 2014 – This is “The Story of the First-Ever Six-Star Dinner” prepared by Ventana Inn executive chef Paul Corsentino as a fundraiser for the organic garden at Captain Cooper Elementary School in Big Sur and beautifully written by literacy teacher Will Bans, who coordinated the effort.
The first star…
Cooper’s garden needed help.
For 20 years, the Children’s Garden at the school has provided students with a year-round connection to the Earth’s bounty of plants, vegetables and herbs.
It is one acre of beauty whether measured by the peek of the Pacific Ocean, or by its output: a small orchard of 16 fruit trees, 20 raised vegetable beds, two grape arbors, two native-plant beds, a berry patch and a greenhouse.
The garden is also one of the first organic school gardens in the Carmel Unified School District. The garden class is taught by Fletcher Tucker, who oversees its upkeep, and is attended by all the Cooper and Apple Pie pre-school kids.
In the spring the school was informed that a large grant, unfortunately, would not be able to match the district’s significant contribution to help fund the garden and garden teacher as it had for many years.
So in June teachers and parents brainstormed for fundraising ideas to ensure the garden could continue in 2014-15 and beyond.
The result: an opportunity drawing. The winner would get a garden-to-table dinner at Cooper for four people prepared by Ventana Inn executive chef Paul Corsentino.
The second star…
On July 1, the first flyer was sent. The community responded swiftly over the next two months. Big Sur businesses such as Glen Oaks and the River Inn generously contributed to the drawing. Parents and teachers approached friends and family, and Mrs. Stephanie Lee’s fourth- and fifth-grade students successfully solicited many kind people.
The fundraising concluded in September and netted nearly $7,000 – well beyond the expectations of the school and much appreciated by the Cooper students and staff.
“This extraordinary fundraiser was a testament to the creative, hard-working and caring people in the school community,” principal Paula Terui said.
The third star…
When Corsentino was approached about the Cooper dinner, he was only three months into his new position at Ventana after 11 years in New York. He was executive chef at The National restaurant in Manhattan and appeared on the Food Network’s Iron Chef programs and NBC’s Today show.
The Cooper kitchen is a small elementary school’s kitchen, quite unlike the professional settings Corsentino has worked. But he’s worked in competitive cooking shows and Cooper had all the necessities.
“The fact that the dinner at the garden is so unique and special and helps the kids,” Corsentino said, “I couldn’t say no.”
Days before the Oct. 18 dinner, Corsentino harvested the garden for the meal. He picked apples, mandarin oranges, Meyer lemons, persimmon, basil, berries and oak leaf lettuce, a standout of the garden’s standouts.
“Lettuce loses flavor between the time it is picked and eaten, but this oak leaf is so good, so fresh,” Corsentino said.
The fourth star…
It was as if the area’s microclimate was timed to be picturesque for the 4:30 p.m. dinnertime because it was perfect.
The ocean looked as blue as ever. Facing the garden at the school’s high elevation, the eastern face of Clear Ridge had all the light necessary to appreciate its canvas.
The dinner party sat underneath a wisteria-laced trellis, on a wooden dinner table decorated with pumpkins and persimmon branches atop Ventana’s white linens.
The lucky winning ticket belonged to Marianna Mori, of Seaside, who brought her friends Tom and Anne Thompson of Prunedale and Georgette Beyah of Monterey, who was the “birthday gal.” She requested a chocolate cake for the dessert course.
They were served by students Jesus and Judith, in fourth and third grade, respectively. The kids were overseen by third-grade teacher Analis Downer and literacy teacher Will Bans, who coordinated the fundraising effort and originally reached out to Corsentino.
Once the dinner guests took their seats, the Jesus and Judith presented them with their six-course menu. Throughout the meal, the two students waited on the dinner party with smiles and the most polite of manners, and trekked the modestly steep path to and from the school kitchen.
“You could tell they really liked the food,” Jesus said. “They were taking pictures of it.”
The fifth star…
“I went all out,” Corsentino said as he dictated the menu.
The first course: chilled carrot and ginger soup with Dungeness crab and marcona almonds.
“I wish I had a spatula to get every last drop of this soup,” Anne Thompson said as she scooped with her spoon.
The second course: Kampachi crudo with Santa Barbara uni, mandarin vinaigrette, black truffle and spaghetti squash.
Before Corsentino could answer the diners’ question of what uni is, he ran back up to the kitchen to get the black truffle he forgot. He returned out of breath but with an explanation.
“It’s a type of sea urchin,” Corsentino said. The two student waiters raised their eyebrows.
“And your black truffle?” Jim Thompson asked. “How much does that go for these days?”
“About $400 a pound,” Corsentino said, as he graded the truffle on top of the salad with the garden’s mandarin oranges. More photos were taken.
The third course: Pasta salad with oak lettuce, pressed chicken, traditional caesar, apple and walnuts.
“The lettuce was literally cut an hour ago from the garden’s lettuce beds here,” Coresentino said as he explained the ingredients.
“And this pasta is homemade?” Georgette asked him.
“Yes, homemade pasta.”
She smiled big. “Home. Made. Pasta.”
The fourth course: Soft poached egg with Maine lobster and salsify.
“Chefs can’t resist any opportunity to make a poached an egg,” Corsentino said.
The fifth course: Sonoma duck breast, butternut squash puree, grilled persimmon and pomegranate.
“Do you think anyone has ever cooked duck breast in this kitchen?” Corsentino asked Bans as he worked the pan.
“I highly doubt it,” Bans said. “And I don’t think many elementary schools have ever approached an all-star chef to do something like this.”
The sixth course: Chocolate cake with mixed berries.
The flavor was a birthday request.
“I promise you this is going to be the best chocolate cake you ever had,” Corsentino said as he presented the cake to her.
Ventana’s pastry chef made the cake look like a woven basket. The top and the layered berry cream filling contained berries from the garden.
After singing “Happy Birthday,” all it took was one bite.
“You’re right. This is the best cake I’ve ever had,” Georgette said.
The sixth star…
At the end, Jim Thompson took his menu–now autographed by Corsentino–and proudly stated, “We just remodeled our kitchen, and this is going on a wall.”
The guests said good-byes and got their leftovers wrapped. The kitchen clean-up ensued.
“I want to make this a Big Sur tradition,” Corsentino said as he wiped the stove with multi-purpose cleaner.
“As an educator, I don’t mind asking the community for help,” Bans said. “We are lucky in Big Sur to have so many world-class people in their respective businesses. The worst they can say is, ‘No.’ But they like opportunities to show their generosity and help kids.”
Corsentino involved the two students in the dinner as much as possible and gave them and the teachers delicious samples. Corsentino chatted with them in between courses. The kids asked about different parts of the courses; Corsentino said he would likely put a couple of the dishes on the Ventana menu.
Because when there is food–where there is a meal–there is community, and for many kids in Big Sur, that is Captain Cooper.