If you still haven't gone to a food tasting, don't believe the skeptics. Vanity Fair called food tastings "tyrannical," and the New York Times likened the pre-scripted dining experiences to being "a cog in an invisible machine." Critic Peter Wells wrote, "The night is exhausting, the food is cold, the interruptions are frequent. The courses blur, the palate flags, and the check stings."
Maybe I'm a pushover, but the food tasting I went to at 5 Fusion last week was one of the most enjoyable evenings of my life. (Full disclosure: I never saw the check.) While technically it was advertised as a "dinner," it unfolded in the manner of a food tasting, with orders coming from the chef, not from the diners. So what's wrong with that? Only a control freak would call a restaurant "totalitarian" for trying to predict what people want to eat. Besides, food isn't just food anymore—sometimes, it's entertainment. Buying a ticket for Avenue Q doesn't mean you get to decide which of the puppets have sex in the third act.
Giving in to a higher power—in my case, renowned Executive Chef and local Joe Kim—was well worth the capitulation. I enjoyed no fewer than 18 truly inspired dishes, all of them dazzling and delicious. Mr. Kim personally introduced his creations to the room, which did bring every other conversation to a screeching halt, but that's not always a bad thing. As the chef spoke, the patrons listened with huge smiles on their faces, returning to their chatter as soon as he ducked back into the kitchen.
The immensely-gratifying event was part of the second series of James Beard Foundation Benefit Dinners held at 5 Fusion in downtown Bend. The diners ranged from grungy (me) to glamorous (If that wasn't Judy Dench at the other table, I'll eat my hat), and proceeds from the series provide culinary scholarship opportunities through the foundation and Bend's own Cascade Culinary Institute.
Sure, a lot of the food was room temperature, but by design. Some of it may have cooled down from a more flavorful temperature, a big risk given the scale of the production. Or it might have all been perfect. To be honest, I can't remember, which brings me to my only caveat: Don't go to a food tasting on an empty stomach if you plan on drinking all the wine they pour you. The first hour or so was devoted to a half-dozen bite-size morsels that seemed to melt in my mouth before reaching my stomach.
During the entire event, I sat practically shoulder-to-shoulder in a low-ceiling room with people I'd never met before while servers buzzed around me like bees. Does that sound like a cog-like experience or what? It didn't seem to bother my table. The food and drink kept everyone as happy as clams and mingling with one another. With such an ambitious agenda, the shared experience felt as much like a journey as a meal, and by the end I wanted to have a group hug.
When the meal was over, the diners gave Mr. Kim and his staff a standing ovation. Rising from one's seat to applaud, a common tribute in the performing arts, seems to carry extra meaning at a culinary event where the patrons spent more than four hours filling their stomachs. So kudos to 5 Fusion for its latest James Beard Foundation Benefit Dinner and its other charitable activities. According to 5 Fusion partner Lilian Chu, the restaurant has hosted more than 45 charity dinner events to benefit 19 local non-profits, raising $300,000 since December 2009.