April 17, 2014

Chefs’ battle to benefit Ridgefield’s Founders Hall

Raffaele Gallo, Sarah Bouissou, Art Michaelsen

Every Sunday in recent weeks, Chef Art Michaelsen asked his kids to give him a basket of mystery ingredients from which he created Sunday dinner. “My game plan,” Mr. Michaelsen said, was “experimenting with my children!”

The “game” Mr. Michaelsen referred to is the Battle of the Chefs — a fund-raiser at Ridgefield’s Founders Hall senior center on Sunday, June 2. Three popular area chefs will cross cleavers in a culinary competition similar to the TV shows Top Chef and Chopped.

Chef Michaelsen (of Bartolo restaurant in Ridgefield), Ridgefielder Raffaele Gallo (of the Boathouse Restaurant in Westport), and Sarah Bouissou (of Bernard’s Restaurant and Sarah’s Wine Bar in Ridgefield) will each get four surprise ingredients and 40 minutes to turn them into a delectable, inventive, eye-catching entrée.

The chefs look forward to the challenge. They feel pride in their abilities and confidence in their mental toughness. “A great chef has an innovative talent that can turn fish, meat, pasta, vegetables, fruit — really any food product — into a work of edible art. That’s what I do with food!” Chef Gallo said.

“For this type of event, you need to think fast and pull from your knowledge and past menus. I plan on bringing my game — and a fabulous sous-chef!” said Chef Bouissou.

Chef Michaelsen likened the Founders Hall bout to the demands facing all chefs today: “The industry is constantly changing, and a good chef has to stay on top of this. Most of all, he or she must be organized and able to handle any curve ball that is thrown his or her way.”

In addition to bringing a sous-chef to the showdown, the chefs are allowed an agreed-upon collection of pots and pans and a personal set of knives.

Ten tickets are being sold for seats at the tasting tables where the chefs’ entrees will be served, paired with special wines. For all 200 guests, the chefs will prepare appetizers (using a required ingredient) and desserts.

Renowned food writer and critic Jane Stern will emcee the action. Ms. Stern and her writing partner, Michael Stern, are famous for Roadfood, the guide to tasty, inexpensive food served in colorful local places across America. Ms. Stern’s many awards include the James Beard Award for lifetime achievement.

As host of the Founders Hall event, she vows “not to bore the living hell out of people!” She wants to engage the audience and facilitate communication between guests and chefs. “I will keep it an interactive experience,” she said.

Three judges have been chosen so far: Jocelyn Maminta, health/medical correspondent for News 8/WTNH in New Haven; Denise Mickelsen, senior editor of Fine Cooking, where she edits most of the magazine’s features; and Stephen Fries, a former hospitality industry executive, whose weekly column in the New Haven Register brings together readers, recipes, chefs, restaurants and food events in the greater New Haven area.

Mr. Fries predicts that the Founders Hall fund-raiser will be a great success because “people have become much more sophisticated and food-savvy. Also, everybody loves to eat!”

A fourth judge will emerge from an auction. Also, guests will be able to shop at a boutique featuring dining, entertainment and food-related items, sponsored by Chef’s Warehouse of Ridgefield.

Founders Hall is remarkable among senior centers — so unusual, in fact, that “we don’t think of ourselves as a typical senior center,” Executive Director Grace Weber said. To her it’s an “education, recreation and social center.”

Far from having an institutional look, Founders Hall resembles a capacious Connecticut colonial home with shutters, a pillared veranda, and a fanlight window over the front door. Inside, the center is a gracious, welcoming residence. A multi-tiered chandelier illuminates the two-story foyer and its sweeping, suspended staircase.

Almost 200 people walk through that foyer every week day. Most are attending one or more of the nearly 250 semester courses, seminars and speaker programs offered during the year. Many members are involved with one of the 16 monthly fitness classes. Others have signed up for trips or special events.

Founders Hall has seven classrooms plus the necessary equipment for classes and activities as varied as computing (the center owns 10 computers) and quilting (the center also owns eight sewing machines).

“Our 3,100 members are a diverse group, but they share an interest in learning and a vitality that really defines what we’re all about,” said Laurie Christiansen, Founders Hall communications manager.

Not all members are interested in structured learning. For them there’s a large, comfortably furnished lending library, an area with pool tables, and various spaces to read by oneself or meet and talk with friends.

Membership in Founders Hall is free for all 60-year-old Ridgefield residents and their spouses. A limited number of 60-year-olds from surrounding towns may also join. Program fees are nominal, with non-Ridgefielders paying a few dollars more. Because charges are low, income from programs accounts for only 30 percent of the center’s budget.

“Seventy percent of our funds come from philanthropy. Without our donors, we couldn’t do all the things we do,” Ms. Weber said.

Many Ridgefielders believe wrongly that the Town of Ridgefield built Founders Hall and pays for its operation. Not that the town doesn’t play a significant part: it leases the land to the center and provides about 13% of its yearly income. But Founders Hall was built by a not-for-profit foundation established by the families of Ridgefielders Elaine and John Couri and Liz and Steven Goldstone, and it relies on philanthropy for most of its income.

Founders Hall, located off Danbury Road, is next to the Ridgefield Recreation Center. Seating for the Battle of the Chefs: Stadium, $125; Floor, $200; Tasting Tables (limited to ten guests): $500. The event sponsor is Fairfield County Bank. For tickets, visit www.founders-hall.org, or call 203-431-7000.