CHEFDANCE – HOTTEST TICKET AT SUNDANCE
Posted On Feb 06, 2017
Sundance can be a whirlwind of movies, parties, and midnight champagne laughter, but behind the drunken dazzle there is also utter exhaustion. To negotiate the maddening crowds on snow sodden Main Street from one movie location to another is an exercise in extreme fortitude. Finding something healthy to eat other than deli meat slapped between slices of white bread is another, so imagine my surprise when I found myself sitting at a calm and civilized dinner party in the middle of all this madness. That is premise behind ChefDance, the remarkable gourmet experience at Sundance where scoring an invite is akin to a Willy Wonka golden ticket.
Started fourteen years ago by real estate developer, Kenny Griswold, and his dynamo wife, Mimi Kim, ChefDance has since morphed into the must-attend-at-all-costs-Robert-Redford-approved event of Sundance. Each night over four nights, ChefDance highlights a different chef to serve a four-course gourmet fantasy to celebrities and movie industry insiders sitting at long banquet tables in an underground restaurant. The night I attended, Chef Edward Lee from 610 Magnolia, Louisville, Kentucky was whipping up a culinary storm together with star-struck students from culinary schools across the country. Between the Furikake Rice & Gem Lettuce Bowl and the Miso Smothered Chicken Breast with a side of pork belly set on a bed of deliciously soft grits, I learned that Chef Lee had already received multiple finalist nominations for the James Beard Foundation Awards Best Chef: Southeast. In my mind he was a winner as I continued to lick each of the four course plates clean. The conversation to the left, right, and front of me was an added bonus as I chatted to an ASCAP duo, a music producer, and an Uber executive. I was in network heaven.
But all that excitement paled in comparison to the chat I had with Mimi and her astute 12 year-old daughter, Skyler, before the convivial event began. Skyler is the spokesperson for ChefDance’s charity dinner, Operation Smile, held always on the 4th night. On that night, Skyler went on to deliver an inspirational speech about discrimination among children, https://youtu.be/xbbzDzHJtl8 as well as to present a check for $1,000 – money that her and her classmates raised by selling snacks during recess. This amount quickly morphed into $30,000 thanks to the generous donations of the guests that same evening.
What is Operation Smile all about?
Skyler It gives free surgeries to kids who are not able to get the surgeries on their own – kids with facial deformities like clef-palettes and clef lips.
Do you feel children could risk being bullied if they don’t have the opportunity to have the surgery?
Skyler Yes, that and sometimes they are not able to get it fixed and it can damage their childhood. I went to Shabu in the Phillipines for my first medical mission trip where I got to help the child specialist with the kids before and after their surgeries.
(Skyler had to run off to another appointment)
Mimi I think that the spirit of giving and sharing starts young. It is an everyday gift, everyday learning experience. Especially at such a tender age, Skyler’s about to be a teenager and the experience has changed her already. It has shaped her and the way she looks at the world. It has also made her less selfish.
What was your most heartwarming experience with these children?
Mimi It was Skyler’s birthday two weeks before the trip and she asked if she could have a Polaroid camera. I thought she wanted to get it because it was a new fad and I felt it was wasteful because she already had a digital camera. She replied, ‘Mom, it’s not for me, I want to get the camera to take a picture of the kids I meet and I want to give the kids the picture as a gift.’ I was not sure many of the parents would allow us to take photos of their children but Skyler assured me she would ask their permission first. So this one child, Lance, who had a very severe deformity was sitting on his mom’s lap and Skyler asked the mom if she could take a photo of the both of them. The mom agreed and after the photo was taken, Skyler wrote ‘To Lance, with love Skyler’ on the back of the photo and gave it to them. The mom, with tears in her eyes, said this was the first family portrait ever taken of them – she was so touched. I think anything you do with sincerity will shine through and be well received.
Why do you feel so passionate about ChefDance?
Mimi Because I have seen both sides. I used to be a bond trader on Wall Street – meaning I was spending, being entertained, enjoying that side. Then I realized coming across this way that it is so important to know what true entertainment is. ChefDance connects the business to film to the culinary world. It connects in every way but also, you address some of the current issues whether it is the Women’s March, equal rights, diversity, or social justice. We have an obligation to continue to make sure our voices are heard.
Robert Redford chose to have an event here at ChefDance. What did that mean to you?
Mimi He’s such an icon. He’s Mr. Sundance so to me it was the biggest honor that he would come here to celebrate his daughter’s film premiere. As soon as he came in, everyone got up, applauded – there was respect in the room. I don’t think he just stands for the film. He is such a social activist and an environmentalist. He is a humanitarian and also a food lover and he is very passionate about what he does and how he lives his life. We can all learn so much from him.
What is it about ChefDance that makes it so special?
Mimi I think this is probably the only event at Sundance where you have a sit-down dinner over a three-hour period. We don’t turn tables and we are not in a rush. The whole point is that I’m inviting you to take a breath, sit down, enjoy, and finish your conversation. And you see how these tables are so close together? You are elbow to elbow. Look to your right, look to your left, and meet someone new, someone special. It is celebrating old friends, new friends, new projects, or thinking of future projects. Also, leave this place a little more enlightened or inspired and I have done my job right.
How did the concept of ChefDance start?
Mimi When I first came to the Sundance Film Festival fifteen years ago, when my husband and I were dating, he suggested we go to all these fancy parties. I remember thinking, ‘I’m talking to someone, but my eyes are constantly on the tray passes because I’m starving.’ I said to Kenny, ‘I love Sundance, I love films but I don’t think I am going to come back next year,’ and he asked why not. I told him there was only so much Red Bull and vodka I could take and I could not afford to just lose weight and be hungry all the time. We were sitting at a Chinese restaurant and he pulled out a napkin and asked me to write down what would make me excited to come back. ‘Real dinner and great people to exchange ideas,’ I answered. So he asked me to write down two of my favorite chefs and that we were going to invite people to our home for dinner. That is how it all started. The dinner was a huge success and the people who attended wanted to attend the following year and the people I never got to invite were upset and wanted to attend as well. It got to the point where I said I cannot afford to feed 100 friends every Sundance and my bank at the time, Citibank private banking, said ‘you know what, Mimi, this is a fabulous idea, make it big and we will sponsor you.’ Then I realized if Citibank is sponsoring why don’t I invite interesting people in a room – filmmakers, studio executives, VIPs, the chefs, the singers…. so yes, food is a really big component but the sauce that makes it different are the people in the room.
It is invite only, correct?
Mimi Yes, but we don’t only invite celebrities. Food equalizes people at ChefDance because celebs are sitting next to a single mom, a film grip, a crew member, PR executive, or even a hairdresser working on set. It’s invitation only but it’s not elitist. It’s an exclusive event that’s so inclusive. This is what makes it so different.
Where is ChefDance in five years?
Mimi This year alone we’re going to the Cannes Film Festival and we’ll be going to the Toronto Film Festival. I want to make it more accessible. I also want to take up some of the social issues and take on a little different theme. Some of these things are the right to choose, social justice, and there’s a huge movement in the cannabis world right now. I have friends who are using it for medical reasons and the family had to move to Colorado because their child could not get CBD components. I think the public needs to be more educated. I want to do some cannabis dinners with leaders in different industries. This year we took a huge risk. Arcview is a huge leader in the cannabis industry, they have thousands of members and we hosted them during the day because they needed a place to hold their summit to talk about the future of cannabis. Although everyone says ‘oh, that’s great,’ no one really wanted to host them and some of the mainstream sponsors bailed out. Someone has to take a stand, so I’m hosting the group here during the day. I have many leaders in the cannabis research world and political regulatory arena all speaking. We all need to be educated before we can voice an opinion. ChefDance in five years will be more of a household name – that is my dream. I would love to wear a ChefDance apron, I love designing things and I want to explore that creative side of me more.