Miami's Annual Make-a-Wish Gala Requires a Year of Planning
It's all hands on deck at Miami's InterContinental Hotel by Nicole Danna
Eight hundred pounds of imported cheeses from France. Six hundred pounds of chocolate. More than 100 pounds of lobster, another 250 pounds of octopus, 300 pounds of fresh prawns, and thousands of live oysters.
These are just a handful of ingredients that go into the annual Make-A-Wish Southern Florida fundraising ball, a large-scale gala-style event that has become one of Miami's most coveted seasonal affairs.
Last November, the InterContinental Miami hosted the annual ball for the 28th year in a row, which raised over $5 million, setting an all-new record for the charitable endeavor. As with years past, the funds raised during the evening are put to work granting life-changing wishes for critically ill children.
For more than 20 years, the annual Make-A-Wish gala has taken place at the InterContinental Miami, an iconic fixture of the city’s Downtown skyline. The event has raised more than $42 million and granted the wishes of more than 7,400 children in South Florida alone.
"For 30 years this has been a relationship," shares InterContinental Miami director of marketing, Gina Genna. "It hasn't changed location, and that's incredible. It really speaks to the magic of what we can do."
Although the gala event lasts just a few hours annually, organizing and executing the Make-A-Wish ball is a year-long endeavor. The massive undertaking is entrusted to the InterContinental Miami’s executive chef Jhonnatan Pinilla Contreras. He, along with his kitchen staff, creates everything the ball's 900-plus guests eat, drink, and experience throughout the evening.
Each January, Contreras begins the job of planning the Make-A-Wish ball for the following November, preparing to source items and ingredients for the lavish culinary displays and a seated meal for more nearly 1,000 guests.
As the chef crafts the vision for the menu, winning dishes are tested by the resort's senior leadership team, including the general manager and banquet director. When it's finalized, each is presented to the Make-A-Wish board.
The work picks up steam over the coming months as Contreras begins placing orders for products — especially hard-to-source or limited ones — with orders rolling in in the weeks leading up to the gala. This year it included 30 pounds of truffles and 500 pounds of Wagyu beef for the main course alone.
The night of the gala, it's all hands on deck.
As guests arrive in luxury cars to step onto the pink carpet entrance, a flurry of line cooks, prep chefs, and sauciers bustle throughout the kitchen to plate and garnish hundreds of dishes. Servers are equally busy, ferrying food down long corridors that lead to the banquet hall.
For the 2023 gala, Contreras transported guests to a fictional French art museum — the Musée Mondial d'Art — where “Le Sceptre Rose," one of the world’s most valuable pieces of art, has gone missing. Throughout the evening, elite "spies" known as the Oculus — played by actress and Make-A-Wish celebrity emcee Gabrielle Anwar, and her husband, gala chair Shareef M. Malnik — are tasked with retrieving the precious masterpiece.
Displays of Johannes Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" and 12-foot-high animations of Leonardo da Vinci's “Mona Lisa,” whose gaze followed guests throughout the reception, served as the theatrical backdrop. An Eiffel Tower beckoned people to the bar, and an 80-square-foot ice sculpture lured guests to a display of lobster, oysters, and sushi. There’s also the prized “Le Sceptre Rose” made of sugar, hidden within a massive chocolate sculpture in the shape of a rose that took more than 15 hours to complete.
The four-course dinner had French influences to match the evening’s theme. "We chose to take a new approach when creating France's staple dishes we all know and recognize, from cheese and macarons to croissants and crêpes," says Contreras.
For starters, a smoked trout mousseline, formed into a triangular shape, was meant to imitate the Louvre in edible form. Other courses included a Wagyu beef Wellington, accented with forest mushroom paté, truffle cheddar, and cabernet truffle demi-glace and an exquisite rose-shaped dessert composed of caramel chocolate mousse atop a hazelnut brownie, coated in a pink rhubarb coulis.
During dinner, guests were entertained by mentalist, Lior Suchard and a 45-minute performance by Sting who performed chart toppers such as "Englishman in New York" and "Desert Rose," as well as fan favorites from the Police's repertoire.
The “star” of the evening, however, was a small girl named Libbi. Diagnosed with a rare childhood cancer as a baby, Libbi is now living cancer-free and, with the help of Make-a-Wish, was able to visit Walt Disney World.
For Make-A-Wish Southern Florida CEO and president Norm Wedderburn, the happiness of Libbi and other children is what the evening is all about. "For a child facing medical fragility, a wish isn't merely a luxury. It's an essential catalyst for their enhanced physical, spiritual, and emotional wellness."
For chef Contreras, planning for the 2024 gala has already begun.
Contreras, who grew up in Venezuela says he garners inspiration from his travels, including an annual trip to Chicago for the National Restaurant Association show. "There you can see all the new trends, not only dishware and glasses but also equipment and new things happening in the market. I'm always looking for something new and exciting to infuse into the new event because that's the expectation of our guests: what's next?"