The Napa Valley. If you haven’t been there, don’t worry. When you die, if you go to heaven, there you’ll be. At day’s end, the setting sun drops behind the Mayacamas, a rocky red volcanic ridge that lords over the valley floor, cordoning off Napa from Sonoma just 30 miles from the shores of the Pacific. After dark, this rampart becomes a spillway for the cool, moist air that hurries in from the beach over the hills down to the vines. This is cabernet country. Sunshine is abundant. Nights are cool. Roots run deep.
Late last fall on a moonlit night, more than two dozen guests gathered at a magnificent villa nestled in the Mayacamas just off the old road to Santa Rosa. They journeyed from across America. They supped at a table fit for a king with the best wines, the finest Champagne, and a menu that had been months in the making. They came to honor Norman Brinker.
Julia Child taught us to enjoy French food. Ray Kroc gave us billions and billions of opportunities to eat junk food. Brinker? Credit him with casual dining, a concept that was unheard of back in 1965 when he opened his first Steak & Ale in Dallas. He was just getting going. In the years to come, after completing a $100-million merger with Pillsbury, he ran Bennigan’s and Burger King. His Brinker International developed Chili’s, Romano’s, On the Border, Maggiano’s, Corner Bakery, Little Italy, Rockfish, and Big Bowl Asian Kitchen. In his spare time, he represented his country in the modern pentathlon at the Helsinki Olympics, played on numerous championship polo teams, won the U.S. Open, and was inducted into polo’s Hall of Fame. Yet none of the evening’s guests were Brinker employees; they were his disciples.
Three decades ago, Chris Sullivan, Bob Basham, and Tim Gannon were new hires on the Steak & Ale payroll. Nowadays they do the hiring. The company they founded, Outback Steakhouse, has more than 90,000 employees. And its three founders are proud to tell anyone and everyone that they owe their success to Norman Brinker. This dinner honored their mentor.
Preparations began when Gannon came up with the idea to host the event at his Napa estate. He immediately put an old friend, Chef George Rhode IV, in charge of his kitchen. Rhode, who trained with Paul Prudhomme and Warren LeRuth, has served presidents and prime ministers. But a table set for the country’s most distinguished restaurateurs and vintners such as Michael Mondavi (pictured at left)? "This would be the ultimate test," says the chef, adding, "It would have to be more than just a memorable meal. It needed to be an experience. An event without equal. And Tim insisted no expense be spared."
Three months out, Gannon and Rhode began planning. With 60 days to go and the menu in place, Rhode nailed down commitments from his brothers, Geoffrey and Gardere, and two Outbackers, Dave Ellis and Pauly Dauterive, to join him in the kitchen of Gannon’s estate. Then came the detail work that is the essence of every great event: ordering food, shipping supplies, getting the kitchen ready. This culinary SWAT hit the ground three days early and began prepping dinner for 30. "Live Maine lobsters. Fresh salmon and Dungeness crab. The top Texas lamb—what a grocery list we had," Rhode crows.
With two days to go Memphis florist Greg Campbell arrived in San Francisco. His Garden District floral company has designed arrangements in every imaginable setting, including weddings in London and Paris. Says Campbell, "It sounds so simple, creating a centerpiece. But, the more you think about it, there aren’t many dinners served on a table that’s five-feet wide and sixty-feet long."
Campbell instinctively knew he wanted to go with an autumnal theme. "Fruited branches are an obvious way to bring out a fall feel," he says. "So I got pomegranates, persimmons, figs—all still attached to the branch. Loads of rosemary. And a lot of berries: bittersweets, china berries." Everything was shipped directly to Napa. Then Campbell hand-picked fresh flowers at the San Francisco Flower Market. "Most of the vendors arrive at one in the morning, so we had a late dinner and went over to Brannan Street. We had the pick of the place and bought right off the growers’ trucks," he says.
The next morning, after an hour-long drive to Napa, Campbell was speechless: "Pomegranate trees and rosemary bushes were everywhere on Tim’s property." His instincts confirmed, Campbell began crafting his meticulous creation on a suede tablecloth, which he had hand sewn for the occasion. Hand-dipped candles, "right around the color of honeycomb," were a sublime inspiration. "I knew I wanted natural light, but a stark white or a colored candle wouldn’t have blended. It would have competed," he says.
Host Gannon insisted that Norman and Toni Brinker join him for the weekend; by sundown their guests began to arrive. Old friends, many former colleagues, greeted one another, their host, and the guest of honor with open arms on the estate’s back patio. Dom Perignon, a La Crema chardonnay, and a Trinchero meritage were served along with an assortment of sashimi-style items. Chef Rhode utilized broken pieces of granite and marble as serving platters for the sake-cured salmon, ahi tuna, and yellowtail hamachi.
From the back patio, the gathering moved inside. A rich butternut bisque, festooned with plump pieces of crab, warmed guests. The salad course was a delightful diversion; the texture and flavor of grilled romaine accented by lobster, artichokes, and shiitake mushrooms. The most daunting course? The entrée, of course.
"I marinated those double-boned, half racks of lamb for two hours. Then I grilled them myself," says Rhode. While Brinker and his crew regaled one another with toasts and memories of battles won and battles lost, Rhode lorded over the hot fire like Leonard Bernstein leading the New York Philarmonic. "Oh, it was hectic," he says in a rich, New Orleans drawl. "Things got really hot out there. Let me tell you, I worked the grill, I worked the elevated shelf, and I did a lot of praying. But I had help from above, and it showed. That lamb was perfect. Every one evenly done. It was a miracle."
Rhode finished the meal with a dessert course he sampled last summer in Venice. "My wife and I were on Torcello at Locando Cipriani. The trip was a gift from my friends at Outback, an award named for Warren [LeRuth]. When they presented the menu card at Cipriani the dessert was an amaretto cake. The moment I tasted it I said, ‘I’ve got to make this.’ When I got back home, I went to four New York import houses to find the very same biscotti. When I finally got the right one it was like I’d won the lottery. The day Tim told me we were going to honor Norman, I knew it was going to be on the menu. It was the best. Just like Norman. Just like those people. Just like that dinner. It was the pinnacle of my career."