The guests include the region’s movers-and-shakers in politics, agribusiness, restaurants and other industries. And at $175 a head, “good enough” won’t do. This dinner has to dazzle and be remembered as a showstopper long after dessert is consumed.
The Tower Bridge provides the setting for the Sept. 28 gala dinner that caps two weeks of celebrating Sacramento as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital.” About 40 chefs will join forces to create a four-course menu and an array of appetizers that spotlight local ingredients. It’s a high-profile event for more than 700 guests. Tickets sold out in less than five minutes, or about the time it takes to boil a pot of water.
The task of coordinating this cast of chefs and serving staff of more than 100 falls on two local chefs: Brian Mizner of Hook & Ladder and Jason Poole of Dawson’s at The Hyatt. The two are known among the local restaurant industry for their culinary chops and embrace of local ingredients.
In the wider community, these chefs lack the name recognition of Patrick Mulvaney and Randall Selland, the two veterans who headed the Tower Bridge dinner’s debut in 2013. But any anonymity likely won’t last long.
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The torch of leading the Tower Bridge dinner has passed to a younger generation of chefs, and with it, the profiles of Mizner and Poole are expected to rise. They’re poised to emerge not only as culinary leaders but as figureheads in a city that’s increasingly defining itself by food – so long as the dinner unfurls as smoothly as it did in 2013.
“You look at the reputations of Patrick Mulvaney and Randall Selland, and they are some huge shoes to fill,” said Mike Testa, vice president of the City Convention and Visitors Bureau, a key organizer of the Tower Bridge dinner. “The bar is extremely high, and these (new) guys are doing their best to reach it.”
High-level appetizer meeting
A bleary-eyed group of chefs take their seats for a recent 10 a.m. meeting at Hook & Ladder. The hot topic: appetizers that will be served at the Tower Bridge dinner. The morning roll call includes some of Sacramento’s signature food personalities and rising stars, including Michael Tuohy (Block Butcher Bar), Scott Ostrander (Esquire Grill) and Adam Pechal (Pour House).
It’s an early call for chefs, who tend to keep night-owl hours. But this meeting, headed by Mizner and Poole, is treated as a Very Big Deal. Nobody outside this inner circle is allowed to eavesdrop on a planning session for the exclusive dinner, including the media.
The menu offerings remain hush-hush but will include some form of trout and chicken as entrees, and no doubt the summertime staple of local tomatoes. Though the menu’s a collaborative effort among the chefs, Mizner and Poole decide what makes it to the bridge.
Organizers considered a handful of candidates to lead this year’s Tower Bridge gala. Oliver Ridgeway, the executive chef of Grange, was mentioned as an early possibility, but wasn’t able to commit because of travel plans. Ravin Patel, the executive chef for The Selland Family of Restaurants, was also on the short list due to his high profile and leadership with 2013’s bridge dinner.
Mizner and Poole (not to be confused with Jason Poole of Preservation & Co.) ultimately were handpicked by the City Convention and Visitors Bureau, which has hired two full-time staffers to oversee farm-to-fork programs and activities in the region.
Poole, 32, was selected in part because he’s well versed in feeding large crowds. A 10-year veteran with the Hyatt Regency hotel chain, Poole moved to Sacramento from San Diego two years ago to serve as executive chef at Dawson’s restaurant. His résumé also includes a stint in Washington, D.C., where he served as part of a crew that put together a meal for 5,000 at an area horse race.
“It’s all in the scope of things,” Poole said. “If you can cook for 10 people, you can cook for 500 if you plan properly.”
Mizner credits Poole’s cut-to-the-chase style, perhaps a remnant of Poole’s East Coast upbringing, for making the meetings and overall planning run efficiently.
Poole’s inclusion also fits with the overall marketing goals for Sacramento as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital.” With backing from the City Convention and Visitors Bureau, the farm-to-fork campaign is as much about “heads and beds” and making Sacramento a food-destination city as it is about access to healthful local foods and supporting area farmers.
“It’s an initiative about locals but also about our tourism business,” Testa said. “It’s a good tie-in to use a restaurant like Dawson’s. The Hyatt’s also used to holding dinners for 800 to 1,200 people, so (Poole) already has that ability there.”
Cool head in the kitchen
While Poole is still something of a newbie in Sacramento’s restaurant industry, Mizner, 36, has worked in kitchens around the region for two decades. He started as a dishwasher at Sizzler and later became part of the team at the former Masque Ristorante in El Dorado Hills, named by Esquire magazine as among “The Best New Restaurants of 2004.”
Mizner’s part of the fabric of the local chef scene, having spent time at the former City Treasure and L Wine Lounge, as well as The Golden Bear – the sister restaurant of Hook & Ladder. Unlike the stereotype of a hot-blooded chef working out anger management issues in the kitchen, Mizner is known for his even keel and humble temperament.
Mizner leans on Poole’s background in large banquets to help manage the logistics of the Tower Bridge dinner. Poole counts on Mizner to help recruit local cooks and chefs for the dinner, and also round them up for the occasional morning meeting.
“I’ll be walking around town and walk into their kitchens to make sure they’re coming,” Mizner said. “Sometimes I have to find them through texts and Facebook to hunt them down. But a lot of these guys I’ve known for years so it’s like, ‘Jump aboard.’ ”
Still, both Mizner and Poole hesitated slightly when they were pitched in early April to lead the Tower Bridge dinner. They were among the chefs who collaborated at the gala last year, and know the time involved in organizing and executing at such a high level. Both chefs have busy restaurants to run, and taking the lead on this dinner would require some serious commitment.
Poole took the challenge in part to increase the presence of Dawson’s among the area’s restaurants, and to provide a unique opportunity for his staff. Both also knew that being asked was a honor. Ultimately, neither could say no.
“We’re pretty lucky,” said Mizner. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. When we come three or four days ahead (of the dinner), I’ll start getting nervous. Right now, it’s just about coordination and sending lots of emails.”
The organizational duties basically fall in two camps. Staff from the City Convention and Visitors Bureau help secure the necessary permits needed for shutting down the Tower Bridge and hire security, among other duties. Mizner and Poole are responsible for all the food operations, including planning the menu, sourcing ingredients and ensuring that service goes smoothly.
“Feeding people is the easy part,” said Mizner. “The hard part is getting all the coordination beforehand and funneling it down.”
Mulvaney in mentor mode
The most recognizable face of last year’s farm-to-fork celebration, Mulvaney won’t be attending the Sept. 28 dinner to see Poole and Mizner in action. He’s planning to attend the Chefs Collaborative’s Sustainable Food Summit in Boulder, Colo., at the time the dinner unfolds.
Nevertheless, Mulvaney is serving as a mentor and sounding board for the two. Mulvaney has plenty of experience cooking for large crowds given his restaurant’s catering wing, and will be holding a “FoodStock” pig roast at Raley Field on Sept. 14.
Much of the Tower Bridge dinner’s original template was devised by Mulvaney, who provided an outline of how much food is needed for each table, how the duties should be divvied up among staff and other factors. Poole and Mizner are adhering to many of these guidelines, including the “family style” format, albeit with a few changes.
The seating arrangement on the Tower Bridge will be tweaked from its original setup. Instead of a single community table running the length of the bridge, tables will run in two rows, and will be broken up by an additional section at the bridge’s center.
This format should allow for easier food service, while also accommodating more diners. The guest list for the upcoming bridge dinner stands at 740 – a bump of more than 120 guests compared with 2013.
Mulvaney knows the stress felt leading such an epic meal. Quality control needs to be considered for hundreds of plates, and turning a road into a fine dining destination is no easy feat. Mulvaney has encouraged Mizner and Poole to have fun, stay present in the moment and consider the uniqueness of their position. But more than anything, he’s advised them to be prepared.
“It’s tough and a lot of pressure, and everyone’s watching you,” Mulvaney said. “And I know they’ll do great.”
If the Tower Bridge dinner goes off without a hitch, Mizner and Poole will join Mulvaney and Selland in an elite group. It’s one thing to be a leader in a kitchen, but successfully running an event of this scale can result in a sort of shot-caller status among other chefs.
“I’m excited for them,” Mulvaney said. “I know the adventures that await and it’s a cool opportunity. It’ll increase their presence in the community of chefs, and in public, too. The learning comes with that responsibility of choosing how they want to engage with the community. It’s a learning process they embark upon.”
Poole and Mizner aren’t thinking much about future accolades. They’re too busy fine-tuning the meal, and planning a trial run of the main courses and its service at the Hyatt on Tuesday.
“I’m just doing it for the community,” Mizner said. “I guess it’s my time to do it, so I guess I better hang on and see how it goes.”