TAMPA - You'd think the Share Our Strength Taste of the Nation fundraiser Thursday night had nothing in common with the crash and crunch of the Stanley Cup final game next door . . . unless you watched the action offstage.
The $150-a-plate dinner and auction at the Tampa Marriott Waterside to benefit America's Second Harvest food bank and the Beth-El Farmworker Ministry is an annual all-star event. The added attraction is always an out-of-town celebrity chef brought in as the stone-faced coach while local culinary champions donate time, ingredients and assistance on the guest chef's recipes.
Starting at 1 p.m., racks of glasses and appetizers careened down hallways and chefs worked elbow to elbow in backrooms. Finally, chefs lined makeshift work tables balanced on No. 10 cans of diced tomatoes and plated 450 stacks of lobster salad and avocado terrine, and four more courses.
In the center was visiting chef Carmen Gonzalez, who opened her first bistro in Old San Juan at 19 and two decades later has put Carmen the Restaurant in Coral Gables and its rich Puerto Rican flavor on top.
"I'm still the little girl living her dream," she said happily. And she is little enough to make the Lightning's 5-foot-9 Martin St. Louis look like a giant, but she is firm and passionate enough to command bigger bruisers.
The cooking at Carmen is more graceful, mature and authentic than nuevo Miami of old. Gonzalez requires classic skills in her kitchen, says good night to each table and stresses the long-simmered complexity of flavors that distinguish Puerto Rican cooking from Cuban. "Every Latin country has sofrito," but her island's tomato base is deep and distinct.
At Taste of the Nation, she ran a beefed-up line that included chefs Marty Blitz, Tom Pritchard, Massimo Patano and the Marriott's Michael Lottermoser, and kept a keen eye on ingredients, rejecting, for instance, half the plantains.
In the ballroom, captains Art Gazelle and Howie Mohammed went over the playbook with the wait staff: four forks, three knives and two spoons, five wines and five food courses, plus coffee, two tables per waiter.
"All service will be on signal," Gazelle said. Palm moving up and down meant "clear"; index finger in a circle, "head back to pick up next course."
"Somehow at the end of the day, it all comes together," Gonzalez said. Lightning coach John Tortorella could say the same thing. Only Gonzalez's teamwork produced a record $100,000 to fight hunger.