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At NFL's Taste, fine dining with big side of charity

Posted 12:31am on Sunday, Feb. 06, 2011

FORT WORTH -- Think of it as the ultimate buffet line: On Saturday night, the Fort Worth Convention Center played host to the 20th annual Taste of the NFL, a Super Bowl weekend charity event that supports food banks across the United States.

Thirty-two chefs -- representing the NFL cities -- were on hand to serve up a dish of their choice. In addition, an all-star roster of North Texas chefs was invited to showcase its wares, including Grady Spears of Grady's, Jon Bonnell of Bonnell's Fine Texas Cuisine and Brian Olenjack of Olenjack's Grille in Arlington.

More than 3,000 guests paid upward of $600 a ticket to attend.

"We started [Taste of the NFL] in Minneapolis, where I froze my butt off," said chef Allen Susser, of Chef Allen's in Aventura, Fla., who was one of the founding chefs of the event. Susser said chefs from around the country regard an invitation to cook at Taste of the NFL as a mark of high prestige.

"I have a waiting list of 10 guys back in Miami who want to take my place," he said.

For foodies, the night provided the rare chance to sample regional cuisines from virtually every corner of the country. Among the many standouts were a tuna fish taco from Jonathan Hale of The Prado at Balboa Park in San Diego and a cover steak with smoky Brussels sprouts, served by Kevin Rathbun of Rathbun's in Atlanta. Rathbun's brother Kent, of Abacus in Dallas, was representing the hometown team. His food station had some of the longest lines of the evening.

In a room heavy with cheese grits and braised pork belly, though, a little bit of dessert went a long way for some.

"Did you taste the cupcakes from the woman from Minnesota?" asked Chris Small of Cleveland, referring to chef Lynne Hackman of Franklin Street Bakery.

"When chefs come to this kind of event, no one wants to do dessert, because it's too complicated. But she just knocked it out of the park."

The event also featured current and retired football players signing autographs at each of the cooking stations.

Those with the longest lines of fans included Randall McDaniel of the Minnesota Vikings, Freeman McNeil of the New York Jets, Gino Cappelletti of the New England Patriots and Chad Hennings of the Cowboys. Country singer Martina McBride also performed.

Just about everyone expressed a sense of relief that, after a week when so much seemed to go wrong in North Texas, one of the biggest Super Bowl-related parties came off so smoothly.

None of the chefs reported major difficulties making it to town or getting the necessary ingredients delivered.

Meanwhile, between sips of wine and bites of gnocchi with wild mushrooms (from Pittsburgh's Anthony Zallo), attendees were pretty much all smiles.

"It's been disappointing for the area that we haven't been able to put our best foot forward because of the weather," said Kristi Webb of Dallas. "But everything here is fabulous."

Added her colleague Matt LeSage: "We've only double-dipped twice, for the blackened scallops [from North Carolina's Cory Sharpe] and the cranberry turnover" from Green Bay's Sanford D'Amato.

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