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Tripping Through the Food Universe: Theo's chef Nicci Tripp has tapped into the guest-chef trend by moonlighting at the Kuumbwa's Jazz and Dinner series.

Be My Guest

Chef swapping is all the rage as the 'infusion' trend catches on in SC

By Jessica Neuman Beck

A truly amazing chef can change an average restaurant into an outstanding one, so it stands to reason that dining establishments would want to hoard their best culinary artists, in the manner of a small child with a really cool toy. But more and more, Santa Cruz's most posh dining establishments are proving that great cooking is something to be shared.

The "infusion" trend toward guest chefs is not a new one, but recently it's become all the rage. Kuumbwa Jazz Center regularly features guest chefs during its performances as part of its Jazz and Dinner series. Last October, Nicci Tripp from Theo's cooked dinner for Steve Czarnecki's Soul/Jazz Quintet show, and going forward Kuumbwa plans to feature such chefs as Raj from Malabar and Al Frisbee III from Al Frisbee Catering. Chefs from Allez Gourmet, La Bruschetta, Cowboy Diner, Don Quixote, Tyrolean Inn and Dessert First cooked at Roaring Camp during their "A Taste of SLV" dinner and silent auction in 2003. And, of course, the occasional appearance of an off-site chef at an already fabulous eatery turns an average dinner into a special occasion.

Lynn Sheehan, award-winning chef from Sand Rock Farm Inn in Aptos, is no stranger to cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen. "I've been doing this for 20 years," she says. "Sometimes things aren't where you expect them to be, but you get used to it."

Sheehan, a former celebrity chef, runs Sand Rock Farm Inn with her mother, Kris. She also heads Art of the Good Life catering. She has always done guest chef spots here and there, but in the last six months, she says, the trend has really exploded. In January, she joined chef Robert Morris for a wild mushroom dinner at Black's Beach Cafe, which featured a multicourse feast with mushrooms in every dish. She'll also being doing a guest chef appearance at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, cooking for guests of the Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra show on March 4. And she'll join chef Nicci Tripp for a special dinner Theo's Restaurant in Soquel.

Sheehan has been busy the past few months. In addition to her catering business and regular guest chef gigs, she and Scott Guthman are collaborating to bring dinner service to Scottie's Cafe in the Sash Mill. Sheehan and Guthman became friends through their formation of CASCC, Culinary Alliance of Santa Cruz County, a professional organization devoted to bringing together farmer, winemaker, restaurateur and artisanal producer. Their new venture will feature chefs from around the region in addition to the expertise of Sheehan and Guthman.

Gabriella Cafe's head chef Jim Denevan has put his own spin on the chef-outsourcing trend with his Outstanding in the Field dinner series. Held at some of the country's most beautiful organic farms, Outstanding in the Field events present guests with an opportunity to learn the intimate details of the foods they will be eating. Preceded by a tour of the farm, the elaborate, multicourse meal is served family-style to between 80 and 100 guests, including food artisans such as winemakers, cheesemakers, chocolatiers and fishermen, who can add their expertise to the dinnertime conversation.

Outstanding in the Field has been profiled by Gourmet and San Francisco magazines, and Denevan is something of a celebrity in the local cooking world. When Outstanding in the Field started, Denevan did all the cooking as well as the planning and the hosting, but, he says, "that was a lot of work." Now Denevan hosts the events, and is joined by top regional chefs, hand-picked for their culinary mastery. Before traveling to a region, Denevan approaches chefs to see if they are interested.

"They don't usually take a lot of convincing," he says with a laugh.

Working with other chefs has been a rewarding experience for Denevan, who brings his observations about other people's cooking styles back to the kitchen at Gabriella's.

"I steal a few things, here and there," he admits.

In 2003, Outstanding in the Field visited farms in Davenport, Bolinas, Santa Clara, Brentwood, Santa Cruz and Carpinteria, as well as traveling to New York for a dinner at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Sleepy Hollow. This year's schedule includes a trip to the Live Earth farm in July, as well as events in Virginia and Kansas.

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From the February 25-March 3, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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