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Saluting a save

Several hundred of us watched a life being changed tonight. The change-ee will never forget an evening that started with dire concerns about her family’s financial situation and ended with a fresh start, courtesy of two restaurant luminaries who presumably didn’t know her before today. But I’m pretty sure the rest of us will never let it slip from memory, either.

But first, some chiding: If a mention of Salute to Excellence calls to mind a predictable night of canned speeches and saccharine tributes, you clearly weren’t at tonight’s installment.

The banquet, which was celebrating its 25th anniversary, is unique in the business because it spotlights individuals at either extreme of a foodservice career.

Part of the festivities is celebrating the teenage winners of the annual ProStart challenge, a competition between high school culinary teams from across the country. As the mentor of the winning team stressed to me, his pride unbridled, “These are the leaders of tomorrow.”

The other usual highlight of the evening is a celebration of a new “diplomat,” or an industry luminary whose example is an inspiration to any thinking person in the business. This year’s honoree was Ralph Brennan, one of the finest individuals ever to grace the trade. Put a Friday lunch at his Ralph’s on the Park on your bucket list, because you’ll see how sublime a New Orleans dining experience can be. He’s that good as a restaurateur.

You can argue that he’s even better as an industry leader, tirelessly serving the industry through his association involvements and informal mentoring of those who work for or know him.

Kudos to the NRA’s Education Foundation for packing a surprise  tonight for Ralph and everyone else in attendance. Before he took the podium, pandemonium erupted. A second-line parade blew through the doors of the ballroom, with masked participants throwing or handing out beads, umbrellas spinning, as they high-stepped and danced through the room. A three-piece rock combo appeared on a balcony, wailing out a New Orleans tune. It was raucous.

Then, after Ralph gave a moving speech, many of us jumped out of our skins as cannons shot glittering confetti over our heads. The band charged into “My Tutu,” and the place rocked. This was not your father’s Salute.

But that wasn’t the big surprise of the evening. That came earlier, in what was clearly an unscripted moment.

Apparently some of the attendees had learned of the difficulties a high schooler in the ProStart competition was having at home. The nature of that rough patch wasn’t disclosed, but there was a vague mention of financial problems. In any case, explained master of ceremonies Carlton Curtis, the young woman would probably have to scrap her plan to start culinary school at the celebrated Le Cordon Bleu.

Not so fast. Curtis ceded the microphone to Ferdinand Metz, the former dean of the Culinary Institute of America and a long-time culinary educator. He noted that Burt Cutino, chef of the famed Sardine Factory restaurant, was on the board of Le Cordon Bleu. He and Cutino agreed that the young woman shouldn’t be denied a culinary education. So, on the spot, they were giving her a full scholarship.

The young woman came to the podium and tearfully gave thanks. It’s a safe bet the banquet staff had to collect plenty of damp napkins that night.

“Now you know why we do what we do,” remarked Curtis.

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