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    Culinary series brings together star chefs, performers, patrons to benefit ArtsMemphis

    By Jennifer Biggs - The Commercial Appeal -

    Last week, about 20 people gathered in the East Memphis home of Pam and McNeal McDonnell to kick off a summerlong celebration of the arts in Memphis.

    And for ArtsMemphis' Artafactor Culinary Series, food is taking center stage.

    "The culinary arts are very important to us," said ArtsMemphis president and CEO Susan Schadt. "We felt like our chefs have kind of been in the background, but it's getting very exciting around here, and we want to support them."

    The dinners, which will go through September, feature well-known chefs in the kitchen of a private home, arts benefactors (hence the name) at the table, and entertainment ranging from portrait artists to improv actors to musicians. A big party Nov. 3 at Beale Street Landing will cap off the fundraising series.

    At the McDonnells' home, it was the city that stood out among a group of artists and patrons who see Memphis as a special place.

    Music was provided by Deering and Down, and Lahna Deering, originally from Canada, explained how she and Rev. Neil Down ended up in Memphis.

    "We were on our way to L.A., and we made a point of passing through Memphis. We fell in love with everything about it, and went on to L.A. and had a typical L.A. story, getting swindled and the whole thing, and then said, 'Let's go back to Memphis,' " she said.

    Virginia Murphy, the director of the improvisational storytelling company Playback Memphis, opened a captivating performance by telling the story of the 12-minute ride to school with her boys. No talking is allowed, but the sounds of WEVL radio fill the car -- and it's something that makes her love Memphis.

    Other actors told their stories, then acted out the story of McNeal McDonnell, who owns Brussel's Bonsai Nursery and appreciates the arts because of his family's long link to arts in Memphis. They acted out the story of Bruce Hopkins, an ArtsMemphis board member who is a banker by trade and a lover of arts in his heart.

    "In my heart, I am an artist," one of the actors dramatically announced to laughter, then repeated, "Je suis un artiste."

    Schadt spoke after the performance and before dinner. The arts are vibrant in Memphis, she said, and it's all over town. She told the story of a young man dancing in the audience at a pop-up event in Frayser. On request, he sang "Amazing Grace."

    "People had tears running down their faces," she said. "I still get chills thinking about it."

    His impromptu performance led to a scholarship at the Stax Music Academy.

    "And there are stories like this all over town," Schadt said. In each of the past three years, she said, ArtsMemphis has awarded $4 million to arts organizations that make stories like these happen.

    Preparing the dinner was Brown Burch, a native Memphian who has cooked in fine restaurants including the prestigious Le Cirque (he was the corporate chef and opened the location in New Delhi as well as working in New York).

    A variety of passed appetizers included tempura-fried gruyère on bamboo skewers, arranged in tall vases filled with peppercorns and a deep bed of wheat grass. There was cauliflower espuma (foam) topped with smoked salmon roe, and paper-thin slices of avocado wrapped around big chunks of crab meat served in an elderflower broth.

    The first course was an artfully composed selection of seafood -- lobster, crab, oysters and caviar -- on a bed of custard topped with a thin layer of champagne gelée.

    "When I was in New York, there was a discussion at a chef conference," he said. "'Is what we do a craft or an art?' To me, you develop the craft, and you become an artist."

    Burch, who cooked Donnell Century Farm sirloin with morel purée and served it with a potato terrine for the main course, plans to open a restaurant in Memphis after he returns from a summerlong trip to Europe.

    "This is home," he said. "It's been my dream since I was 17 to travel the world, learn everything I can about food, then have a restaurant in my hometown."

    Other chefs scheduled to cook over the series include Erling Jensen (date and venue still to be announced), José Gutierrez, Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman, Karen Carrier and Kelly English.

    "The cool thing about this is that the series is a unique concept," English said. "It's another example of the forward thinking we're seeing around here."

    Schadt finds it fitting that the piece of art chosen to represent this year's Artafactor (in the past, Artafactor has been one big party; the dinner series is new) is Maysey Craddock's "The River Remembers." There's the big party on the river called "Go With The Flow" that will follow the culinary series, and serendipitous events have brought chefs, artists, hosts and ArtsMemphis together.

    "It's all just kind of coming together," she said.

    -- Jennifer Biggs: (901) 529-5223

    Artafactor Culinary Series

    7 p.m. Friday.

    Home: Chris Cooley.

    Chef: Karen Roth.

    Entertainment: Voices of the South; portrait artist Kate Bradley.

    7 p.m. June 23.

    Home: Kristen and Richard Vining.

    Chef: Keith Bambrick.

    Entertainment: Keia Johnson; Hattiloo Theatre.

    7 p.m. June 24

    Home: Lucy and Tom Lee.

    Chef: José Gutierrez.

    Entertainment: Grace Chamber Players; Pat Fusco Trio.

    7 p.m. July 12.

    Home: Mary and Corey Trotz.

    Chef: Karen Carrier.

    Entertainment: New Ballet Ensemble, Tout Le Mon, poet Beth Ann Fennelly.

    Bonus: Cooking demo by cookbook author Martha Foose.

    7 p.m. July 19.

    Home: Dianne and Myron Mall.

    Chef: Ryan Trimm.

    Entertainment: Opera Memphis.

    Bonus: Goody bags from National Ornamental Metal Museum and Ballet Memphis.

    12:30 p.m. brunch, July 22.

    Home: Ann and Robin Smithwick.

    Chef: Wally Joe.

    Entertainment: Marcela Pinilla; Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

    7 p.m. July 26.

    Home: Margaret and Michael Shivers.

    Chef: Jackson Kramer.

    Entertainment: Myla Smith; Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum.

    6 p.m. Aug. 18.

    Home: Ragan and Lon Magness (lakehouse at Moon Lake).

    Chef: Emma Lincoln.

    Entertainment: Blues musician TBA.

    7 p.m. Aug. 24.

    Home: Lauren and Ben Keras.

    Chefs: Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman.

    Entertainment: Bluff City Backsliders; portrait artist Derrick Dent.

    7 p.m. Sept. 13.

    Home: Deborah and Bob Craddock.

    Chef: Kelly English.

    Entertainment: Indie Memphis; Brian Pera film.

    Erling Jensen will prepare a dinner in the series, but the date and location are yet to be determined.

    Contact information

    Call (901) 578-2787, or go to artafactor.com/ dinners for more information or to purchase tickets for a dinner or the November party. Dates are subject to change. Check artafactor.com for up-to-date information on the dinners.

    The cost of each dinner in the series is $225, which includes admission to the Nov. 3 Artafactor party at Beale Street Landing. Tickets for the party can be purchased separately for $75.