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Benefits tease out the talent

Two important fund-raising events, as different from each other as foie gras is from fried chicken, beckoned Portlanders and their cash last week. But both shindigs showed how hometown food innovators help rally support for deserving causes and entertain patrons at the same time.

You probably heard about the Dinner of the Decade, a black-tie gala on April 21 that boasted award-winning chefs from around the country. Staged in the transformed lobby of the Embassy Suites Portland Downtown, it served the dual purposes of raising money and awareness for a proposed Portland public market and honoring native son and culinary pioneer James Beard. At $800 a head, the dinner raised around $50,000.

In contrast, the inaugural Cherry Blossom Ball was decidedly downscale, showcasing the talents of neighborhood restaurants and a couple of culinary maestros who operate under the radar.

Held at Berbati's Pan on April 23, the modest ball benefited the Community Alliance of Tenants, a group that advocates for renters' rights and affordable housing. Billed as a celebration of local talent Ñ culinary, musical and visual Ñ it drew a racially diverse crowd of politicians, artists and activists who are not commonly found under one roof.

That's just what organizer Rich Rodgers, a member of city Commissioner Erik Sten's staff, had in mind. 'I have a lot of friends who are artists of one stripe or another, who aren't necessarily political people,' he says. 'I wanted to give people an exciting reason to get involved in civic affairs.'

For a first-time effort that was quickly thrown together, the Cherry Blossom enjoyed a robust turnout and raised approximately $2,000.

The night began with a spread of wonderful phyllo-wrapped salmon by Colosso chef Lisa Kirkpatrick and perfect seviche by Taqueria Nueve's Billy Schumaker. Chefs from Gino's and the now-defunct Details also pitched in, but the night's surprise foodie delight was Dennis Harris' barbecued ribs and chicken.

Harris, a longtime best pal of Sten, is a construction worker by trade, but his passion is barbecue. 'I've been cooking since the third or fourth grade,' says Harris, who grew up in Portland. 'I was a hyper child, and home ec was one of the classes they put me in because it was active.'

For this event, Harris fired up the grill around 11 a.m. and kept it going, well into the evening, to cook 150 pounds of meat. His smoky, dry-rubbed chicken was some of the best I've ever sunk my incisors into, and his homemade sauces Ñ one spicy, one sweet Ñ were sublime. Harris' secret is patience. He refuses to parboil meat, saying that grilling it longer produces superior flavor.

Currently, only Harris' friends, neighbors and Cherry Blossom attendees have tasted the fruits of his hobby, but exuberant compliments at the event have encouraged him to plan a catering sideline. We'll keep you posted.