Fabulous Femmes at Flanagan’s Table

Krista Kern Desjarlais, Melissa Kelly, Cara Stadler, Ilma Lopez, Kim Rodgers, and Briana Holt would be at the top of any one’s list when discussing culinary talent in Maine. To categorize this group of women as the best “female chefs” in Maine misses the point. They are some of the best chefs in the state, period, no modifier necessary. The group gathered last Sunday night at the Barn at Flanagan’s Table to put on an elegant and delicious fundraiser for the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital. This was the second year for the benefit dinner, and Lopez, owner and pastry chef of Piccolo and Caiola’s, has been the driving force behind it. She’s an energetic organizer, piping mousse onto her dessert one moment, lending a hand to other chefs the next. I catch her during a brief moment of stillness to ask about the impetus behind the dinner. “Before I even had a child, I volunteered at the hospital, decorating cupcakes with the kids. I wanted to do something more, to spread the word. We need a hospital here in Maine that has the best equipment and the best doctors, best nurses, and caring staff,” she says. “We are blessed to have a hospital here like this and to know it’s here for all families. We are extremely blessed that we never had to use it, but it’s important to know it’s here.” Before the first dinner last year, Lopez contacted her friend Alex Wight, the owner of Flanagan’s Table, about the idea. They reached out to Sarah Stern, philanthropy manager at the hospital, who was thrilled to be the beneficiary of such an idea. “The hospital has such a strong female name,” says Wight, “and this evening is put together by women, one hundred percent. The fun and energy that comes out of that is incredible.”

The first person I see when I pull up to the barn is Erica Archer, unloading cartons of wine from her car. Archer, owner of Wine Wise Events, is a dynamic wine educator and sommelier, who shows up at events with well-chosen bottles to pair with the menu and the stories behind them. The kitchen is buzzing with activity, as the chefs and their assistants are deep into dinner prep. Jenna Sprafkin of Primo is gently stirring beurre monté for chef Melissa Kelly’s main course of grass-fed sirloin beef with lobster butter and charred corn agnolotti. Rodgers of Hugo’s is slicing mushrooms paper thin with a mandolin for the second course, tom kha gai with chicken roulade. And Holt of Tandem Bakery is frying delicata squash rings to be passed as an appetizer.

As diners begin to arrive, Bri Lopez of Liquid Riot and Oxbow Brewing Company is behind the bar, pouring house-made vermouth, an herbaceous, slightly bitter brew. “It’s a good beginning to the evening,” she says. “It’s a savory, low alcohol drink.” The big barn is set simply but tastefully with one long table, lit with candelabras and votives that cast a romantic, flickering light. I am seated next to Paula Cano of A Family Affair of Maine, an event planning and design company based in New Gloucester. Cano is treating her staff of four women to tonight’s dinner as a “thank you” for a successful wedding season. “I feel strongly about supporting women’s businesses,” she tells me. Just before Desjarlais, owner of Bresca and the Honey Bee and the yet-to-be open Purple House, serves the first course of pinecone-smoked pumpkin and kombu-roasted beets, Stern thanks everyone for their support of the hospital. “Events like this make a huge impact in our community,” she says. The hospital’s new pediatric intensive care unit cost $3 million to construct and $2.3 million was raised from events such as this, she says

After the first two courses, chef Cara Stadler of Tao-Yuan and Bao Bao Dumpling House (and the not-yet-opened Lio), presents a trio of dim sum, brought to the table in bamboo steamers, along with sauces to enhance the delicate buns and dumplings. Each course is paired with a wine chosen by Archer, who takes the time to explain her selections and how they suit the food. And Lopez’s dessert, a multi-layered affair of chocolate budino, almond mousse, toasted almonds, and roasted pears, is the glorious finale. At the end of dinner, Wight brings out all the chefs to a huge round of applause.

Just like most great parties, the evening ends in the kitchen. The chefs, now much more relaxed, gather around the island, eating leftovers. Bri Lopez is ladling fragrant hot toddies from a stockpot and Leigh Kellis of the Holy Donut is frying up cinnamon sugar doughnuts for guests to take home. Alysia Zoidis of East End Cupcakes sends everyone off into the night with a box of beautifully decorated mini cupcakes. Fabulous femmes, indeed.

Flanagan’s Table | 668 Narragansett Trail | Buxton | flanaganstable.com