Since early August, Four Seasons properties throughout the country have been hosting a series of “Undercover” dinners, and they’ll be continuing until October. These unique luxury experiences each focus on fine dining and entertainment uniquely suited to the host city, and they’re kept completely secret until the very last minute — literally. I had the opportunity to attend the Undercover event at the San Francisco Four Seasons this past weekend, and not only was it a whole lot of fun, it also painted a picture of the efforts that the luxury hotel brand is making to stay on top of the latest trends.
First, a little on the hotel. The huge Four Seasons San Francisco is located in a prime spot right on Market Street, adjacent to Yerba Buena Gardens. It’s peaceful and spacious, and incredibly luxurious. The lobby is on the fifth floor, sharing the space with an ample lounge area and the restaurant, MKT Restaurant and Bar. With dark oak floors, brass detailing, hunter green and black leather, and windows looking out over Market Street, the restaurant is a gorgeous space. The menu is divided between small plates (charred octopus, braised calamari, terrine of foie gras), soups and salads (English pea soup, summer squash salad), and entrées (black cod with quinoa, scallops with corn, Liberty Farm duck breast with fava beans and leaves, Brandt Beef prime flat iron steak). The bar is a neighborhood hidden gem, with a wide variety of cocktails both creative and traditional.
The rooms are, as expected, luxurious and generously appointed. Soaps are from L’Occitane, the mattress is insanely comfortable, and there are great little touches everywhere you turn, like a long cushioned window seat along the wall-to-wall windows, plenty of plugs and chargers, a deep tub as well as a shower, and complimentary shoe-shine service. The in-room dining menu is also very impressive, and room service is available 24/7.
Arriving at the Undercover dinner in the lobby, I was greeted by assistant food and beverage director Erissa Kido, who was responsible for putting the evening together. “We talk about entertainment usually just along the lines of music, dancing, and performance, but not dining,” she told me. “We’re setting out to change that, and this is quite different from anything else that we’ve done before.”
There’s been a decided shift from stuffy to more casual dining experiences in recent years, Kido continued, and Four Seasons set out to embrace that in their own unique way. “People are looking for unique dining experiences,” she said. “I’ll admit that it was a little scary to think outside the box, but it was a very fun and ultimately rewarding process.”
So what was the theme? After the entire group of about 35 diners was assembled, Kido and PR manager Meg Paynor introduced renowned street artist Ethan (aka Joker) of San Francisco’s 1:AM Gallery and announced that “one of the unique elements of our city is street art, and tonight we’ll be showcasing that. We wanted to bring street art and that particular brand of creativity to the food that our chefs have created. We’re extremely excited, and it’s certainly not your typical Four Seasons event!”
The group took their seats around a large table and were treated to a lengthy and fascinating lecture about the history of graffiti by Ethan, who, along with being a renowned street artist and running the gallery, conducts street art experiences and corporate team building.
“There’s a renaissance of street art and graffiti going on right now; it’s the most popular up-and-coming art form on a global level,” he told us. “It’s a really exciting time, and we’re going to take a trip into that world today.”
After the crash course — during which we learned about early graffiti artists like Cornbread and Stay High; the golden age of graffiti in the ‘80s, when artists like DONDI used whole subway cars as their canvas; and the state of contemporary street art, with artists like Shepard Fairey and Banksy becoming international brands — guests were encouraged to come up with their own personal “tags” and write them on a canvas with a graffiti marker. Guests then followed Ethan to an outdoor space where four canvases were set up; after a quick lesson in the proper application of spray paint (how to choose the right spray cap, how to achieve the desired thickness, the differences between professional graffiti spray paint and Krylon), we donned ponchos and gloves to try our hands at creating graffiti ourselves. Ethan and his team saved the two middle canvases for themselves, and used the opportunity to create two custom pieces to commemorate the event over the course of the evening.
Back inside, guests finally got the opportunity to sample the dinner that the hotel’s chefs had prepared. Set up cocktail party-style, dishes served at several different stations included foie gras emulsion with strawberry and sourdough; melon gazpacho with toybox tomato and basil oil; poached wild salmon with watercress, corn, and hazelnut; braised short rib with radish, peach, and cilantro; and scallops with celery root, concord grape, and pine spray. To wash it down, vodka or gin Collins were shaken up, and guests had the choice of topping theirs off with house-made mango, blackberry, or raspberry syrups. Every dish was artfully plated, occasionally with the aid of some “molecular gastronomy,” and the presentation was definitely a nod to street art.
“All chefs secretly want to be artists, and we feel like we’re forced to plate clean,” Four Seasons executive chef Alexander La Motte told me. “This was a great opportunity to have some fun with the food, to incorporate painting, texturing, and layering, and to do some things that we’ve never done before.”
The evening was a certified success, and all guests were clearly thrilled with the opportunity to learn about an aspect of the art world with which many weren’t familiar. Putting an experience like this together was a massive undertaking, and it went off without a hitch. It’s not easy to be high-end and a whole lot of fun at the same time, but it’s clear that this is exactly the premise of Four Seasons Undercover, and they nailed it.
If you’re interested in attending a Four Seasons Undercover event, upcoming ones include Baltimore on September 16, Houston on September 18, Orlando in September 24, Palm Beach on September 25, and Vail on October 10. Details on the events to be held at the Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills will be announced in the coming weeks.