April 4, 2012
Alice Waters presents Darrell Corti with 70th birthday cake

The Tuesday night event was billed as a $500 a head fundraiser and dinner for the Center For Land-Based Learning, with an appearance by the "slow food" figurehead, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. But behind the scenes, a surprise party was in store.

Tuesday was also the 70th birthday of Darrell Corti, the renowned gourmand and grocer - and check the latest issue of Sactown magazine for a rare profile of Corti by former Bee columnist Rick Kushman. The ever spotlight-shy birthday guy didn't want any fuss about himself as arriving guests wished Corti a happy birthday.

"Shhh!" said Corti, with a finger to his lips. "This night is not about me."

But for Waters, a longtime friend of Corti, it sure was. She presented a cake as fellow guests sang "Happy Birthday" to a thoroughly blushed Corti.

"He was one of the first customers at Chez Panisse, and introduced me to some of the precious ingredients of my life: Balsamic vinegar, Sauternes, truffle," said Waters, earlier in the evening. "He's the father of gastronomy, and that requires such an encyclopedic knowledge. The best part: He's so generous."

Waters also remarked about a recent visit to China where she hosted a dinner of local foods for 350 guests. But, when it came to which wine to serve, she was stumped. To get a handle on the situation, she consulted Corti who recommended she pour a sparkling wine from Schramsberg.

"That's the wine served when Nixon went to China," said Waters, who's also a member of the California Hall of Fame. "He said to make a toast in that spirit of peace. He educated me, and I was able to give that toast."

Held at the Walnut Grove home of Rusty Areias, a friend of Corti and former assemblyman, 60 guests were seated to a four-course dinner that included plates from chef Scott McNamara of Bistro Michel and sumptuous appetizers of pork belly and uni by Kru's Billy Ngo. Wines included local offerings from Dancing Coyote, Harbor Winery and Terre Rouge.

"He's educated Sacramento's collective palate," said Areias, who was also instrumental in helping Corti Brothers stay open after nearly losing its lease in 2008. "He also put Sacramento on the culinary map. He's the locomotive of the local food scene."

PHOTO CAPTION: Chef, author and founder of Chez Panisse restaurant Alice Waters presented a birthday cake to Sacramento grocer and wine expert Darrell Corti on Tuesday at the home of former lawmaker Rusty Areias, far right, in Walnut Grove. At left is Bistro Michel chef Scott McNamara. The gathering of about 60 people celebrated Corti's 70th birthday, as well as the Center for Land-Based Learning, which is dedicated to nurturing young farmers. Bob Slobe/Special to the Bee

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