Digestively speaking, if somebody told me that I'd be whiling away my Sunday afternoon hangover at a posh recreation of an Iron Chef scenario — people actually competing … with food … food that smells like food — I'd probably be flushed down the toilet and halfway through my secret underground sewer escape route faster than you could mutter the words "black-eyed pea." But somehow, through some complex arrangements of casual conversations diluted with alcoholically compliant smiles, I'm currently hearing from the voice on the other end of my cell phone that I really wanted to be here. And so, as unlikely as it seems, I am.
"Where did you purchase your ticket from?" a kind wristbanding woman with a cashbox queries.
"Um, I didn't get a ticket."
"Oh, well, the event's sold out."
"But … but …" I reach just past my excuse to leave, just shy of shame and into my useless business cards. "I'm with Orlando Weekly. I'll be writing about, um, this."
A cute waiter with blond chunks recognizes me and nods an OK, somebody hands me a wineglass and tells me not to lose it, and just like that I've hopped tax brackets. This is rich.
"The Battle of the Parks" is a daunting proposition, not because of its noble aim — chefs from high-end eateries of the College, Winter and Thornton parks sprucing up a secret ingredient for charity and tastebud superiority — but more because of its unbearable networking compression. Inside downtown condo-feteria the Beacon, hordes of brunchy minglers with cosmetic enhancements and smart phones are shoulder-to-shouldering their way through three long lines for restaurant-representative tapas and splashes of wine. And it's not like that's a bad thing — everybody seems to fit in with each other, and more than one cabernet smile is effusively teething — it's just that not only do I not belong here fiscally, I don't like wine … or food, for that matter.
"I'm certain there's somebody in there serving Tic-Tacs," my friend Delight — who is responsible for the unlikely presence of hearts of palm at today's event, and at least a little bit responsible for mine, too — diverts my anorexia on the outside deck.
"Can they cut them in half?"
"Oooh, you draw the line at three-quarters of a calorie, then?"
Delight goes on to vocalize something about her palm hearts that resembles "It's a little tight between the two food tables" and "but I was worried it would be too small," while my friends Roy and Tim, who I've met here, join me in drawing inappropriate mental pictures and giggling like, well, unimaginative queers. And instantly everything is whimsical. Literally.
"Those lampshades as chandeliers? Whimsical!" Roy flutters. "Beaded curtains? Wwwwwhimsical!"
But when our crowded conversation space ceases to produce the necessary whimsy ("This conversation is NOT whimsical," etc.), Roy and I start eyeing the drink menu for non-event, more-potent potables. We browse the cleverly named concoctions ("Pickle" is one: pickle juice and vodka, actually) and almost settle on "Hard" just because we feel like ordering "one large hard, please." Instead, we settle for margaritas and wait for the fruity click of top-shelf whimsy, while enduring a painful sommelier test that's sort of like Name That Tune, only with wine. We breeze by the silent auction long enough to notice that an Islamorada fishing excursion with somebody named Rusty retails at $550, while a vintage LaBelle Mink begs $2,000. Good to know.
WKMG-TV's Jacque-line London (today's mistress of ceremonies) almost bumps into us and our drinks while she's both walking and staring at her feet. She doesn't seem very sociable, despite all efforts to appear otherwise. I think I love her.
More sociable, larger and harder is former Channel 9 investigative loverboy, Josh Wilson. He quit last year to start working for FEMA (!) but is still entertaining his hot television Sherlock side, even bringing up a particular queer serial murderer from Tampa while I'm drinking.
"Omigod," I swallow. "Tim used to date him."
Now this is my kind of networking. Josh and Tim start sharing prison notes while my eyes travel over to super-hot District 4 police liaison — the one who still owes me a cop crotch contest at my cubicle — Jim Young (and his crotch) sitting at a reserved table over here on my side of the law. He brings his boyfriend Michael over and I all but rub my ass on him (again) before he retires back to his prime seating, occasionally inviting me over to "sit on my lap!" To dream.
But this isn't my standard Cop Rock, "I put the Billy in billy club" fantasy; it's a cooking contest to which I owe some promised attention. So this is how it goes down: Three spunk-hunk chefs — Laird Boles from the Beacon, Brandon McGlamery from Luma on Park and Kevin Fonzo from K Restaurant (and the outer reaches of my friend circle) are each given slabs of striped bass (the secret ingredient!) to turn into something both ridiculous and edible by means of garnish and elbow grease. Roy, Tim and I, likewise, are competing to see how many staged photo situations we can spoil by frowning in the background. It probably goes without saying that the latter contest steals the bulk of my attention.
"You know what they say about black-eyed peas!" Jacqueline London nonsenses from her judging position next to four snooty foodies with pedigrees. (Luma wins in the end.) "Good luck in the new year!"
Flush. I'm firstname.lastname@example.org