In the bowels of Loews Annapolis Hotel, a dozen frantic chefs, theirwhite hats bobbing, danced attendance to the ovens.

The culinary masters of Maryland's capital were working feverishly to get the lastplates of sea bass out the door before the waiters came back for thequail.

Trays full of the grilled, deboned birds, each surrounded by a sea of raspberry sauce, lined one of the stainless steel tables. Three carts were ready to roll.

Time was running short. The guests had finished off the hors d'oeuvres -- the smoked salmon, sushi and havarti cheese -- a half-hour earlier. The chefs scurried about the cavernous kitchen calling out clipped instructions as they pulled scallops out of the oven and wheeled gallons of soup down the hall.

More than 200 of Annapolis' upper crust were waiting in the candle-lighted banquet room. Dressed in tuxedos and soft silk dresses, they chatted atlinen-covered tables decorated with flowers and ice sculptures of lighthouses.

The shimmering sculptures represented the focus of Tuesday night's banquet -- the newly opened Light House shelter for the homeless, just four blocks down from the Loews Hotel.

A group of prominent chefs from Annapolis hotels and restaurants came up with the idea of a gourmet benefit. They decided to cook a nine-course meal toraise money for the shelter.

"This is the first time the chefs ofAnnapolis all are getting together in one place," said John Meushaw,executive chef from the Ramada Inn, who organized the banquet. "It'sa lot of fun and a great way to raise a lot of money."

Though he and some of the ministers involved in the benefit acknowledged a certain irony to indulging in a nine-course feast to help the homeless, they said the ends justified the means.

"We would be naive to thinkthere wasn't a paradox in this," said the Rev. David R. Henry, pastor of United Church of Christ of Annapolis, one of the seven churches that run the homeless shelter. "But we feel we're raising a significant amount of money with this."

Annapolis Area Ministries, an ecumenical church coalition that began the Light House as a roving shelterin 1988 before finding it a permanent home on West Street, hopes to raise about $10,000 from the "bountiful harvest for the homeless."

Many of the guests said they volunteer at the shelter. Others came to the banquet because they wanted to offer some assistance, but couldn't spare enough time to spend a night a week working with the homeless.

"I think if there's anything we can do to raise money to help the homeless, it's terrific," said the Rev. John Murray, between bites of sushi. The pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church said he couldn'twait to taste the dinner, especially the dessert, a white chocolate mousse billed as "Her Alibi."

Fresh truffles were the final touch,concocted by Phillipe Bind, the same pastry chef from the Bread Place who created "Her Alibi."

"I like to experiment with new items," said Bind, showing off his sweet transformation of Swiss chard, whichbecame the center layer of a petit four.

A native of Strasbourg, the culinary capital of the Alsace region of France, the 26-year-old already has worked at some of the most prominent restaurants on the East Coast, from Tavern on the Green in New York City to the Peabody Court in Baltimore.

At 5:30 p.m., an hour before the banquet began with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, Bind and a couple of the younger chefs relaxed briefly in a back office. Some had a smoke; others dranksoft drinks.

A half-hour later, the younger chefs had joined their older mentors in bustling about with worried looks on their faces. Everyone was moving at once, speeding from spot to spot to decorate plates, slap sauce on seafood, or stir a salad.

Michael St. Ledger,executive chef at Loews, whipped off a piece of paper from a tray ofpastry shells and joked, "It's organized bedlam."

The message on the paper was more pointed. It warned: "Touching these may result in death or worse."

Amid the confusion, one warmer full of plates with the first course, coronet of sea bass, was shoved in a corner. It was discovered at 8:20 p.m., while Shelly Salmon, the chef at TrufflesRestaurant, was dishing up her consomme of bison.

Even though bison no longer is an endangered species, the meat was tough to find, Salmon said. But she smiled prettily at the supplier, and he not only found some bison meat, but also donated it to the cause. "It was incredible," Salmon said.

Almost all the food was donated by more than 40 area suppliers, restaurants and hotels.

None of the leftovers were going to the homeless, but the families staying at the shelter Tuesday night also got a special dinner, catered by Pearl Restaurant.

Standing behind a cornucopia of wheat sheaves and fall fruits, Joe Rock, the shelter's new director, talked about the benefit.

Rock, who previously counseled the homeless with the Community Action Agency, said all 12 beds have been full nearly every night. He said the benefit was "badly needed" to help the shelter expand its services.

The Light House plans to offer longer-term transitional housing in two upstairs apartments for displaced families.

While Rock talked offuture fund-raising plans, Salmon and the other chefs concentrated on making the "bountiful harvest" memorable. The chefs and waiters wanted to make sure the guests had a complete gourmet meal, perfectly garnished and served with a flourish.

This was their donation, a joint effort in creativity, to make raising money a tasteful affair.

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