Now in its 9th year, LA Loves Alex’s Lemonade threw the cookout to end all Cookouts on the grassy Royce Quad of UCLA last Saturday, breaking last year’s record for most funds raised for the cancer charity. More than 2,500 attendees enjoyed bites from some of the nation’s best chefs, as well as sips and pours from numerous mixologists and vintners. The auctions alone raised over $650,000, with an impromptu dinner at Jimmy Kimmel’s with chefs like Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, raising 300,000 alone. The dinner was so popular, they auctioned it off three times at $100,000 each.
One of the things that sets LA Loves Alex’s apart from the numerous food events happening in LA is their solid lineup of chefs that return year after year. Other events have rotating participants, with some heavy hitters, some new and “happening” restaurants, and some talented local neighborhood spots. At Alex’s, the chefs are all heavy hitters. You know when you attend Alex’s you are going to see Suzanne Goin, Jonathan Waxman and Giada De Laurentiss–at the very least. Chefs Marc Vetri from Philadelphia, Redbird’s Neal Fraser, Phoenix’s Chris Bianco, Michael Cimarusti, Nancy Silverton of Mozza, New Orlean’s Donald Link and Zoe Nathan of Huckleberry have been volunteering every year since the very first cookout in 2010.
There was a lot of seafood happening on the quad, with co-chair David Lentz of Hungry Cat wowing the crowd with a fried oyster roll and fresh uni, straight out of the sea urchin’s shell. Diver Stephanie Muntz of Sea Stephanie Fish in Santa Barbara was on hand to help serve the urchins she had caught herself.
Chef Timothy Hollingsworth of Otium once again served a favorite dish: yellowtail confit with smoked eggplant and sweet and sour tomatoes. Confit is the ultimate cooking technique. Everything should be cooked confit.
The standard setup at Alex’s is that two chefs share a tent. They usually each create their own dish, but sometimes they work together to create a kind of alchemy. Michael Cimarusti (Providence, Connie and Ted’s, Best Girl) and Josiah Citrin (Melisse, Charcoal Venice) worked together to create an unbelievably good bite. The flavors really came together in their Pork Belly and Clam Tostada. The avocado was the perfect catalyst to create something that was more than the sum of its parts.
So, I did mention heavy hitters, didn’t I? First to bat is Chef Neal Fraser of Redbird, who created an adorable plate of tiny local squid on compressed melon with just a hint of chili. Chef Steve Samson of Rossoblu served a grilled swordfish spiedini that looked like a little lollipop, with smoked eggplant caponata and herbed bread crumbs. David Lefevre from Manhattan Beach’s Fishing with Dynamite made little versions of buckets of Prince Edward Island moule frites with malt vinegar aioli. Jonathan Sundstrom of Lark in Seattle brought his “A” game with a weathervane scallop with squash blossom mole, cucumber, serrano salsa and crispy pepitas from.
In spite of the wealth of seafood, there was not so much “surf” as to obliterate the “turf.” Chef Hilary Henderson of CUT by Wolfgang Puck satisfied the carnivores with a generous serving of tender grilled New York Steak served over sautéed white corn, heirloom cherry tomatoes, feta and tzatziki. Chef Michael Fiorelli of Love & Salt (for the moment) served his ever-popular “Downlow Burger” with caramelized onion, fontina and tomato aioli. Anytime we go there for brunch, one of my nephews always orders that burger.
Not to be outdone, pork’s game was strong with Chef Bruce Kalman of Knead & Co. and West, a fast casual concept in partnership with fellow Top “Cheftestant,” Tyler Anderson, set to open somewhere on the Westside next year, presenting his peerless Porschetta Sandwich, cooked on the grill outside. Chef Zach Pollack of Alimento and Cosa Buona barbecued Pork belly “Marco Polo” nestled inside of lettuce cups. From the best I could Google, “Pork Belly Marco Polo” suggests some Asian flavors in the mix. We are always excited to see Donald Link of Herbsaint in New Orleans. He is the Master of Boudain, grilling it and serving it with a summer bean salad.
There was not a lot of chicken, but you do not need any other chicken when Suzanne Goin, Adam Cherney, Mercedes Rojas, and Joel Walsh of Lucques, A.O.C. and Tavern break out their Spanish Fried Chicken. It was topped with romesco aioli and coleslaw, and served on a parker house roll.
On the lighter side, Evan Funke of Felix Trattoria’s sfincione, a light, soft bread with pizza flavors alongside creamy Stracciatella cheese was a surprise hit. It looks like it’s just regular old bread, but that is just a clever disguise. Chefs Shannon Swindle and Denis Crutchfield of Craft got creative, inventing a pimento cheese churro with green tomato chow chow. It wasn’t exactly the texture of a churro, but it was delicious. Ray Garcia of Broken Spanish and BS Taqueria prepared a vegetable forward dish of heirloom potatoes, fresno chiles, cotija, manzano vinegar and avocado salsa, which was surprisingly spicy.
Perennial favorites, Chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken of Border Grill created a “Taco Flaco” with huitlacoche and mushrooms in a lettuce cup. They also served a salad of heirloom melons, ginger, fresh herbs and a jalapeno soy glaze. That’s the way to diet! Chris Flint of Nomad’s made a beautiful heirloom tomato salad with peaches, ricotta salata, and smoked pork, while Jenn Louis of Ray in Portland went fully vegan with her tomato and cucumber salad with horseradish and dill
There were so many chefs this year, it was just impossible to hit them all. I had to forgo the places with long lines or that were between batches when I passed them in order to visit as many tents as possible. Sadly, I didn’t get to try Giada De Laurentiis’ crispy chicken meatballs, Cassia’s Orange Chicken, or BBQ-ed beef from Adam Perry Lang of APL. I was also late to the dessert section, so I missed Valerie’s always tempting cookie bar, Salt & Straw’s double-fold vanilla ice cream with butterfly flower shaved ice and lemon sweet cream, and Sweet Rose Creamery’s mini ice cream sundaes.
But Sherry Yard of iPic and Tuck’s Room Tavern can always be counted on for some sugar-fueled zaniness. An old-fashioned sno cone machine in her candy-shaped balloon-decorated wonderland cranked out blackberry shaved ice, which was then topped with a dollop of sweet vanilla ice cream to make it into a sort of gourmet 50/50 Bar.
Everyone was having fun in the cocktail tent. Ignacio Murillo of the Lucques Group was stirring up some bourbon-based cocktails. The New Lion sounded particularly good, with lemon, sasparilla and peaches. Providence was serving a rude barb cocktail with Strawberry Brandy, and Silencio Mezcal decorated their cocktail with orchids.
Since Alex is free to children 12 and under, guests are encouraged to bring them along, chefs bring their kids, and those benefitting from the foundation are also invited, so there is lots of kid-friendly grub, like Link’s hotdogs, more cookies and ice cream than usual, and of course lots of lemonade. It feels more like a block party with all of the kids running around and playing.
The fun and enthusiasm of the event is contagious as everyone carries on the spirit of Alexandria “Alex” Scott, a little girl with cancer whose front yard lemonade stand grew into a foundation that raised over a million dollars before she passed away. The foundation continues hosting lemonade stands large and small in her name. Speaking at the event, her mother told us that Alex would have been 22 years old this year, and probably graduating from college. Let’s keep LA Loves Alex’s Lemonade going and help kids like Alex make it to their graduation day.