HIGHLANDS, N.C. — The dirt and gravel road to Rockwood Lodge climbs more than 1,000 feet in a matter of minutes. Directions alert drivers they’ll need to ford two streams before they arrive. After such a backwoods journey, one doesn’t expect much.
Yet much is what lies at the end of the road. Much much.
Buck and Ann Woodruff’s mountain home (yes, those Woodruffs) is a palace of stacked stone, with the greatest of great rooms and museum-worthy big game taxidermy, including not one but two hippo heads baring their teeth over a mantle. Everything is outsized: The shower stall in the master bath could accommodate a square dance.
On a Sunday night in July — as fog shrouded the 360-degree view in clouds and cotton — this manorial home welcomed seven of Atlanta’s top chefs and a handful of lucky dinner guests.
Led by Canoe chef Carvel Grant Gould, the group — Linton Hopkins (Restaurant Eugene), Gerry Klaskala (Aria), Chris Hall (Local Three), Kevin Gillespie (Gunshow), Anne Quatrano (Bacchanalia) and pastry chef Sarah Koob (Canoe) — sent out course after course. Only Kevin Rathbun (Rathbun’s) failed to make the trip up the mountainside because he had recently broken his ankle. But he did send up his course of coffee-rubbed shell steaks and caponata, not having to worry for a second about the quality of the chefs in the kitchen cooking his food.
Murmured one guest to host Bill Wolff, “This is so much better than the meal I just had at the French Laundry.”
Wolff bid on the meal last October at a fundraiser in Atlanta while his wife, Patsy, had gone to the ladies’ room. “When she came back, I told her we had just bought a dinner for 12, ” he laughed. “I knew it was going to be something special, but I didn’t fully recognize the value of having seven of Atlanta’s top chefs at one event.”
Not that Patsy minded much. The gala event, called A Night of Hope, raised money for research into a cure for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease), the illness that had claimed the life of her brother.
The donation carried personal meaning as well for Gould. Her mother, Ginny Rather, died at the age of 69 earlier this year of ALS after a seven-month battle.
“When we were told there was no cure or any hope for cure, my world changed forever, ” Gould said. “I thought about what I could do to help others, ” she continued, which is how she thought up the idea for the Atlanta chefs’ dinner to end all Atlanta chefs’ dinners. Her colleagues all “signed up with no hesitation.”
While the dinner was supposed to take place in Atlanta, the Wolffs, retirees who divide their time between Lake Lanier and Highlands, asked the owners of the Old Edwards Inn in Highlands, who manage Rockwood Lodge as an event space when the Woodruffs are out of town, if they could hold it there. And would the chefs be willing to ford a stream or two to make it happen? All said yes.
For this kitchen royalty, it was hardly a matter of too many cooks spoiling the soup. Quite the opposite.
“I’m making fresh chitarra pasta with these chanterelles I found by West Paces Ferry Road, corn and this awesome bottarga (dried mullet roe) I just got in from Italy, ” Hall said. “Then Gerry (Klaskala) just came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this black truffle. Want to use it?’ So that’s going in, too.”
Hopkins, dressed in a long blue apron over bright red shorts, plated beet-cured red snapper with watermelon and trout roe, while he sipped a glass of rose Sancerre supplied by the evening’s sommelier, Matt Bradford of Canoe.
Gillespie, checking on his signature pork belly in the oven (destined to garnish a bowl of pork skin risotto), called over to Hopkins.
“Linton, do your parents come in the restaurant?”
“All the time, ” Hopkins answered. “Of course, my dad likes to be the biggest tipper in the room, and I always pick up his bill, so …”
“My dad comes in and sits at the bar, ” Hall said. “He talks to everyone.”
“When my mother comes in, she’s like the mayor of Gunshow, ” Gillespie said.
It was time to send out Hall’s pasta course, and he tossed the ingredients in two large skillets with handfuls of diced cold butter. He portioned out the pasta and heaped the remainder in a large bowl. “If y’all want to try it …, ” he said.
Klaskala slivered his egg-sized summer truffle with a plastic Japanese slicer and set two resplendent slices atop each bowl of noodles. Waiters brought the bowls to the table, and Hall followed them into the dining room to describe the dish. Seconds later, the assembled lions of Atlanta’s restaurant industry all descended on a bowl of pasta with forks.
“What an evening, ” Gould said. “Let’s hope we can raise some money again next year.”
To find out more about the A Night of Hope gala or to make an online donation, visit www.mdanightofhope.org. The eighth annual gala will take place Oct. 18 at the Intercontinental Hotel in Buckhead. All funds are earmarked for ALS research. The chefs will donate another dinner.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog