A Feast for the Multitudes
Three months’ work disappears in three hours at Calvert’s Cancer Gala
by Carrie Steele, Bay Weekly staff writer
The lavish buffets and all-you-can-eat setups at Rod ’n’ Reel’s annual Celebration of Life Gala on August 3 will show you seamless extravagance.
What you won’t see is the toil of managers, cooks and volunteers who’ve planned and organized for months to cook up a feast to feed 1,800 people and defeat cancer.
Everybody’s a volunteer, as 100-plus current and former staffers join with good citizens to support, set up, serve and clean up after this three-hour banquet.
“From beginning to end, ordering, staffing, everything is a challenge,” says Orhan Soysal, chief operating officer of the Chesapeake Bay resort.
“There’s timing and coordinating the cooks, servers, bartenders, food runners, bus help and more,” says Mary Donovan, long-time organizer of the Gala.
Last week, the menu was set by Rod ’n’ Reel owners Gerald, Mary and Fred Donovan and 2006 honorary chair Johnny Gott with managers, executive staff and chefs.
The crunch of laying out a couple tons of food begins on the eve of the gala.
“There are a lot timing issues because you are dealing with seafood. You can’t do a lot of things two, three or four days in advance. You want to make sure everything is fresh and you don’t run out of food,” says Soysal. “Eighteen to 20 hours the day before is when we start the actual food prep. Kitchen staff clean the meat, marinate it, wash and peel the shrimps and make its stuffing.”
Much of the staff stays until the wee hours. Then the night owls head home for a couple hours before returning on Thursday.
“You pretty much don’t sleep. Just shave, shower and come back,” says Soysal.
Thursday morning starts at 6am, with staff set to cooking, stuffing and creating. “That’s when we start putting things together,” Soysal says.
The kitchen on gala day is, Soysal, says, “a nuthouse, crazy, with people coming and going.”
The work is fast and determined, with spirits elevated.
“It’s a happy mood,” he says. “Everyone’s willing to work hard and willing to make it a success. There’s a lot of excitement.”
In over a dozen food stations, gala planners mix cuisines both tried and true and new.
“There are certain things that people like and love like the lobsters, shrimp and sauté stations with shrimp and scallops,” says Soysal. Complementing the old standbys, new selections make their banquet debut this year: shrimp Alexander, stuffed shrimp, beef satay, skewered mini crab cakes, mini beef Wellingtons, chicken cordon bleu and veggie cornucopias.
In this feast by the Bay, bounty from the Bay and beyond is ample. This year’s feast includes salmon, rockfish, Maine lobster, clams, oysters (from off the coast of Long Island, where they’re saltier), shrimp, cod, scallops and, new this year, mussels. Seafood selection comes by the boatload, including 600 to 700 pounds of shrimp; 250 pounds of scallops; 600 pounds of fresh fish plus some 3,000 oysters and 3,000 clams.
Last year’s Maine lobster buffet of about 800 lobsters ran out early in the evening. This year, Rod ’n’ Reel will cook over 1,000 to make sure there’s enough for everyone.
The upstairs dessert room features a chocolate fountain surrounded by cakes and petit fours plus a cordials station.
“Last year we had about 30 or 40 different types of desserts, also chocolates brought from California special order,” Soysal said. All the desserts are made in-house, except for the chocolates from Chocolates A La Carte.
Last year’s bill for the feast was some $100,000. Soysal expects it to be higher this year.
In charge of the kitchen is executive chef William Bednar, who’s cooking up his first Celebration of Life Gala this year. Nervous? He says no.
He’ll be working with three other chefs and 16 cooks to whip up the king-sized feast.
Food at the Cancer Gala this year will not only awe you but also help you fight cancer.
“We actually did a lot of healthy foods this year,” says Bednar. “We’ll use a lot of olive oil, and we’re not going to use a ton of cream.”
You can start with your drink. “Pomegranate martinis have anti-oxidants,” Bednar says. “We’re going to use dark chocolate, that’s actually an anti-oxidant, too. We’re serving a lot of Italian and Mediterranean-style foods too, like bruschetta with bean spreads.”
Bedner also teaches nutritional classes for Share Our Strength, a national organization fighting poverty and hunger, in Washington, D.C.
At the end of the Cancer Gala, the thousand-plus revelers will go home satisfied and impressed.
That’s when Rod ’n’ Reel meets its next big challenge: cleaning up.
The revelers “don’t see all the hard work and the effort,” says Soysal, who reports that he locked up after last year’s gala at 3am.
The next morning, counting the good done begins. Mary Donovan hopes to raise $400,000 this for the American Cancer Society. In turn, the society selects cancer researchers all over the country to receive grants. Maryland researchers will get more than $11.5 million this year to study how to prevent and cure cancer.
Rod ’n’ Reel’s 25th annual Celebration of Life Gala: 7:30-10pm Thursday, Aug. 3 at Rod’ n’ Reel Restaurant, Chesapeake Beach. $125 in advance; $150 at the door: 410-257-2735; www.rodnreelcancergala.org.