Culinary Magic

Monica Parpal |
Food And Dining

Picture this: A sumptuous ballroom at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa, abuzz with Orange County’s most acclaimed chefs. Banquet tables fill the space, each one lavishly decorated with towering vases of fresh flowers, flickering dinner candles, and sparkling crystal ornaments strung from above. As the dinner hour nears, guests begin to filter in, clad in black-tie attire and glowing with anticipation. After the first course is served, a keynote speaker steps up to a microphone. “Welcome, one and all, to the Wells Fargo Table for Ten culinary event, benefitting the Illumination Foundation.”

This extraordinary culinary event—preparing for its second year in a row and scheduled for March 23, 2014—is a hugely successful fundraiser for the Illumination Foundation, a charitable organization whose mission is to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty in Orange County. “Homelessness and hunger are huge problems here,” says Illumination Foundation CEO and President, Paul Leon. “Most people don’t know it, but within a seven-mile radius are both the richest and poorest zip codes in the nation.”

Leon, with a background in nursing, started the Illumination Foundation in 2006 in order to educate people about the extent of the problem. “We lacked resources, affordable education, and healthcare opportunities, especially for women and young children,” he says. “Co-Founder Paul Cho and I started this nonprofit to ‘illuminate’ the problem, and to offer resources to those in need.”

Raising awareness is one thing, but raising funds is another, and Leon jumped at the opportunity to work with local chefs to spread the word. For the second year in a row, the Illumination Foundation will partner with Table for Ten Event Founder and Owner Kristin Martin. Key sponsors Disneyland Resort and Wells Fargo will assist with the fundraising efforts to support the fight against homelessness in Orange County.

“After seeing the incredible difference in impact that the charity makes for at-risk children and families in Orange County, I knew the Illumination Foundation would be a good fit with this event,” Martin says. “It is a true pleasure to work with such an amazing group of kindhearted people. Wells Fargo has been a great support in the community, and adding Disney to the team only makes the event that much more spectacular.”

Indeed, hosting the event at the Disneyland Resort is sure to create a sense of enchantment, as well as a connection to children. “At the Disneyland Resort, we are focused on promoting the happiness and well-being of kids and families,” says Mary Niven, vice president of Disney California Adventure Park and Illumination Foundation board member. “Working with the Illumination Foundation allows us to help strengthen families and further their mission of helping to end homelessness in our community.”

That mission will remain the core purpose of the upcoming Table for Ten event, although the sheer elegance of the space—including the tables themselves—is especially appealing. “Last year, one of the tables was decorated with 400 roses,” Leon says. “Another had hundreds of tiny seashells collected and arranged by the chef himself.”

The actual menus are kept top-secret until the night of the event, and often feature creative, exclusive dishes not found anywhere else. Chefs cook tableside and spend the entire evening with their guests, discussing the food, the wine pairings, and their connection to the Illumination Foundation. “Having the opportunity to meet these acclaimed chefs is a huge boon for the diners themselves,” Leon says. “Many of the chefs have grown up in Orange County, and feel especially connected to our community.”

Martin agrees: “By the end of the night, guests are eager to plan a visit to their chef’s restaurant to say hello.”

The table décor, the exquisite food, and the chef interaction makes the dinner feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “I’ve attended the Academy Awards in the past, but this was better,” Leon says. “At Table for Ten, it’s like spending four hours at the best restaurant you’ve ever been to—with the best entertainment to boot!” The entertainment will include the Illumination Foundation’s children’s choir. Additionally, live and silent auctions will feature exclusive worldwide vacations and restaurant dining packages.

Last year’s event generated more than $300,000, funds that went toward building a children’s resource center in a disadvantaged Orange County neighborhood. “Additionally, we have provided housing to more then 5,000 clients in Orange County,” Leon says. “This has been possible in part thanks to last year’s Table for Ten.”

Although it’s hard to imagine anything more splendid and successful than the inaugural Table for Ten, the Illumination Foundation expects even greater involvement and success at the 2014 event. One thing’s for sure: through the help of its sponsors and participating star chefs, the foundation is certainly shedding light on a worthy cause.