September 21, 2006
The Ultimate Tailgater
by JUDY HODGSON
Oh, what a game Saturday for college fans across the U.S. watching the nationally ranked Sooners bite it.
But the excitement wasn't just inside the Eugene stadium. It was in the parking lot before the game, where a slightly rowdy contingent from Humboldt held a pretty fancy pre-game tailgate party for 100 catered by several of this county's premier chefs.
It all started a year ago. Prior to one big game last year, Eurekans Allan and Nancy Grushkin found themselves eating yet another tailgate meal of potato chips and shriveled-up hot dogs. Alan vowed that next year would be different.
Left: Cyndie Heaslet, Allan Grushkin and John Salizzoni at the U of O party. Below: Ducks football game.
"We're going to show you guys how to eat," he said, taunting his Oregon friends as he began his plans.
The funny thing is, the Grushkins are not even football fans, even though they are loyal alums of U of O. They now make the long drive up most weekends, primarily to watch their daughter Rachel, a senior, play the other football — a.k.a., soccer.
"Her games are on Friday and Sunday, so we thought we might as well get season passes for football on Saturday," Allan Grushkin said.
"Anyway, I was teasing these guys from Oregon. I told them we had these chefs [in Humboldt] trained at the French Laundry, at Chez Panisse all bullshit, but they wouldn't know what the French Laundry was anyway," he said. "I promised them next year we would show them how to eat."
Grushkin's plans included hiring his good friend, veteran chef John Salizzoni, to provide a tailgate picnic "that would blow everyone's socks off." Eventually two more of Humboldt's culinary finest became involved — John Louis Hamiche, currently head chef at the Blue Lake Casino, and Cyndie Heaslet, owner/chef of Savory Thyme Catering Co.
The three chefs, who are all good friends and had worked together many times in the past, faced some significant challenges.
"I did all the pre-prep, the salads, garnishes," Heaslet said, while Salizonne and Hamiche were to be the grill masters. "But we had no idea what we were in for. It was like going to a Rolling Stones concert.
"It took forever winding through the traffic and tents [in the parking lot of the stadium] with all our equipment," she said. "We finally got there and we found out we had this tiny parking space."
Salizzoni said they couldn't even get into the stadium until 8:30 a.m. "And we were supposed to start feeding at 10?"
"Let's see, it takes 20 minutes for the briquettes and grill, 45 minutes for salmon (wild, whole and filets), 30 minutes for chicken (served with Heaslet's chipotle-lime sauce), 20 minutes for sausages (Italian pork, mildly spicy, handmade by Salizzoni)."
Then there were mussels and clams to steam and scampi to sauté, so they fired up a three-burner camp stove. Next came setting the table with fresh flowers, tri-colored organic cherry tomato salad in sherry vinaigrette, pasta salad, a platter of Humboldt olives cured locally by Henry, Humboldt's famous Cypress Grove Chevre and fresh baguettes, melons, pears and apples.
The crowd, some clutching flabby gray burgers, began to gather and gawk.
"It was like we were rock stars," Heaslet said. "Everything happened so fast and all of a sudden, we were done and it was beautiful. It was an awesome feeling."
"We had worked together many times but not for about three years," Salizzoni said Tuesday. "It was just like the old days. We were so in the groove we didn't have to communicate. Nothing had changed after being apart all those years."
Salizzoni and Grushkin (a former stockbroker who is now senior vice president of Security National Leasing Corp.) grew up together in Eureka. Grushkin and Heaslet went to high school for a time together in the 1970s, but she and Salizonne did not meet until his 10-year tenure as head chef at Roy's Club.
Right: Steve and Andrea Arnot were among the 100 guests at the tailgate party hosted by Nancy and Allan Grushkin.
Hamiche entered the local food scene in the early '80s, when Salizzoni was bartending at the old Ritz. The French-born Hamiche was hired as the first chef of the Ritz, and later he worked at many of the county's finest eateries, including Hotel Carter and Folie Douce. Salizzoni had tenures as head chef at the old Lazio's (when it was at the foot of C Street), the Hotel Carter and, until 2002, at Roy's. He now works for Pro Pacific Fresh, a food distributor.
"I love to cook so much, I don't know what I'd do without catering," Salizzoni said ... and his favorite gigs are with Hamiche and Heaslet.
Grushkin said the party in Eugene was a resounding success.
"They really, really raised the bar on tailgate parties," Grushkin said Tuesday.
He was bummed, however, to miss the final, thrilling minutes of the actual game.
"We left with five minutes to go," he recounted. "Oregon was behind by 13 points, so we headed back to the parking lot to get an early start home."
Minutes passed, and as they watched on a big screen powered by a gas generator, their interest in the game's end began to grow. Then, as the clock noted two minutes left to play, the generator died and the Grushkins were left to guess the end by the roar of the crowd.
They weren't the only ones.
The three caterers — not normally fans of football, either, but by now mildly interested — had packed up and were headed home. (Hamiche was due back on duty at the casino that night.) As they were driving, intently listening on the radio as the phoenix rose from the ashes, they crossed into the mountains of Highway 199 and the radio signal suddenly crackled and died.
Footnote for foodies: In addition to the big to-do in Willow Creek this weekend, Rotary Club of Southwest Eureka is sponsoring its annual Fish Feed Sunday, Sept. 24, 5-7:30p.m. at the Elks Lodge in Eureka. The menu? Fresh salmon, local oysters and fresh petrale sole from Pacific Coast Seafood. Tickets are $15 each. Call 442-2947.
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