Masters of Arts

It’s no easy task to host a patron dinner, and without a solid game plan that melds memorable wines, exquisite food, and a well-organized charitable organization, the pressure can really boil over.
Tom Celani, Executive Chef Michel Richard, Executive Chef Jean Joho, Vicki Celani, Master Pastry Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer. Photographs by Nick Martines

When $30,000 worth of wine is paired with world-class cuisine as part of a one-of-a-kind patron dinner for 24 people, proper planning shouldn’t be an afterthought. “What we’ve learned in terms of creating a successful patron event is that the food, wine, talent, and venue must be donated,” says William D. Seklar, president and CEO of the Children’s Leukemia Foundation of Michigan in Troy.

To pull together their exclusive dinner, a prelude to the CRUSH Birmingham Wine and Food Classic at the Townsend Hotel in early October, Seklar spent a year orchestrating the arrangements with the hosts, Tom and Vicki Celani of Bloomfield Township, and Master Somm-elier Ronald Edwards of Charlevoix.

“First off,” Seklar says, “you need a great home. And since we were attempting to model our event after the best wine and food events in Napa Valley, Aspen, and Naples, we also needed someone to make sure that the wine and food pairings were of the finest caliber. With all that in play, we were able to raise $36,000 from the patron dinner alone that [went] directly to our services.”

Founded in 1952, the foundation attends to the care of 4,400 patients throughout Michigan who have been diagnosed with leukemia. With a staff of 12 people and 9,000 volunteers, Seklar says the needs of the organization have never been greater. More than 900 new patients asked for assistance in the last year — a high total by historical standards, he says.

To maximize the financial impact of the patron dinner — and to better leverage the second annual CRUSH event at the Townsend the following evening — Seklar asked the Celanis if they would again open their home. But the stakes were different. Instead of asking $1,000 per person, Seklar wondered what could be done to charge $1,500 per ticket — keeping in mind that the economy is challenging.

“We were very interested, but almost immediately my mind went over lessons learned from last year, and how we could do things better,” says Tom Celani, principal of Luna LLC, a multifaceted gaming, wine, retail, development, and lodging company based in Novi. “It was a challenge, and I knew we needed a quarterback to enhance the overall experience.” Celani found his “quarterback” in service and beverage consultant Ronald Edwards.

With Celani Family Vineyards, Tom and Vicki’s award-winning winery in Napa Valley, serving as the featured vintner, Edwards and Seklar had a head start. Still, Edwards says it was difficult to top the 2008 dinner, when Madeira wines from 1834 to 1977 were served and Brian Polcyn, proprietor of the Forest Grill in Birmingham and Cinco Lagos in Milford, was the featured chef.

“Once showstopping wines were chosen, the next step was to find an accomplished chef who [would] listen to advice,” Edwards says. “In this instance, to really upgrade the experience, we searched nationally for not one chef, but two. And we brought in four master sommeliers — [me], along with Sally Mohr and Wayne Belding from Colorado, and Fred Dexheimer from New York.”

For the cuisine, Edwards selected Jean Joho, executive chef and restaurateur of Everest in Chicago, Eiffel in Las Vegas, and Brasserie Jo in Boston and Chicago; and Michel Richard, executive chef of Citronelle in Washington, D.C. They were joined by Jacquy Pfeiffer, master pastry chef and co-owner of the French Pastry School at the City Colleges of Chicago.

“Once that team was in place and we began to market the event, we didn’t have much trouble selling out the dinner,” says Jim Berline, chairman of Berline, a full-service advertising, marketing, communication, and digital agency in Bloomfield Hills who served as event chair with his wife, Debra. “Just one of those chefs standing alone would’ve been fantastic.”

Over the course of several months, Edwards guided the menu selections. In one instance, he asked the Celanis if they could donate a case of 2008 Celani Family Vineyards Vincenza Cabernet Sauvignon Rose and send it to Chicago so that it could be reduced by Joho for the evening’s first course — Torchon of New York State Foie Gras wrapped in Vincenza Rose and Braised Oxtail Rose, with Apple Carrot Aigre Doux.

“Wherever we could, we asked the chefs and the master sommeliers to donate their travel and lodging,” Edwards says. “Again, we wanted to maximize the fundraising as best as possible. The overall goal was getting the right wines matched with the right food so that magic occurs.”

For an executive or business owner entertaining the idea of hosting a patron dinner, Edwards’ advice is to recognize any limitations and hire an expert in wine and food, as needed. He also recommends consulting Perfect Pairings: A Master Sommelier’s Practical Advice for Partnering Wine with Food.

Logistics shouldn’t be overlooked, either. “You really need to put together a great team that includes an event planner, several chefs that you can call on at a moment’s notice, servers, and a valet,” says Vicki Celani. “Every party has a certain ambience, and that plays into the selection of the linens, the flowers, and the table settings.”

Overall, the Celani patron dinner; the CRUSH event, which was attended by 325 people who paid between $250 and $350 a ticket; a patron dinner at Kathryn Kircher’s home in northern Michigan; and a private dinner at the 2009 Somerset Collection Show House in Birmingham raised more than $200,000 for the Children’s Leukemia Foundation of Michigan, Seklar says.

“We’ve already started planning for the 2010 patron dinner and, believe me, we’ll have a hard time topping this last one,” Seklar says. “But that’s the kind of challenge we relish. The biggest thing for us is that we were able to raise the awareness of the foundation without losing sight of our fundraising goals.”