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Food-focused fête draws new crowd to support charity

Addie Broyles, Relish Austin

Staff Writer
Austin 360

On Saturday night, former President Bill Clinton was eating at one of Tom Colicchio's restaurants in New York City. Instead of personally attending to one of the most powerful people in the world, the "Top Chef" judge was doing a favor for his friend, 26-year-old Austinite Garrett Weber-Gale. The gold-medal winning swimmer had organized a $1,500-per-plate fundraiser dinner to raise money for the USA Swimming Foundation, which helps provide swimming lessons for disadvantaged kids and supports competitive swimmers and their coaches.

Weber-Gale, who has both written for and been written about in the American-Statesman, wanted to bring together some of the chefs he's befriended over the past few years as he has pursued his passion for food as intensely as his passion for swimming. So, he asked Colicchio, pastry chef Florian Bellanger, and James Beard Award winners Daniel Boulud, Daniel Humm and David Bouley to come up with "world-class food with a healthy twist" that they'd serve at a fancy dinner held in Bouley's test kitchen in lower Manhattan.

Weber-Gale, who has cooked with many of these chefs in their restaurants around the world, doesn't pretend that he's reached that kind of celebrity, but his unfettered enthusiasm for the craft has earned their respect. So much so that when he asked them to give up a Saturday night for this fundraiser dinner, they jumped at the chance to support their friend.

Weber-Gale first met Boulud, whose restaurants are consistently ranked among the world's best, at Golden Goggles, the Swimming Foundation's big annual fundraiser in Los Angeles, and they've stayed in touch since. Boulud has taken him under his wing, introducing him to other chefs and, by extension, introducing those chefs to the world of competitive swimming.

But not Colicchio, who has been a fervent swimming fan for about as long as Weber-Gale has been alive. "I actually knew who he was before I met him," said Colicchio, a former swimmer himself who was poolside every night during the Olympics in Athens in 2004.

Food-focused events like this "draw a new crowd to help understand what we're doing," said Debbie Hesse, executive director of the foundation, which, through its Make A Splash program, has given away $2.1 million worth of free lessons since 2007, including a number in Austin through Nitro Swimming and Friends of Georgetown Swimming.

The event on Saturday raised more than $40,000, which will help provide more free lessons as well as support swimmers and coaches on the national team, Hesse said.

Rowdy Gaines, the three-time Olympic gold medalist who has become one of the sport's most visible analysts, said there aren't many athletes like Weber-Gale who make time to pursue a career outside the pool.

"It's rare to find an athlete that is both a great athlete, a great business person and a really great person," Gaines said. "You'll find lots that have two out of three, but Garrett has all three.

"It inspires other swimmers. It's hard because when they retire, they don't know what to do with their lives."

Weber-Gale insists that swimming comes first, especially with the Summer Olympics in London around the corner, but cooking is a mental, emotional and even social release. He's not assured a spot on the Olympic team (the trials aren't until June), but he says he's in the best shape of his life. When he travels to New York, he trains at the New York Athletic Club, where he swam 3,400 meters and put in an hour and a half in the weight room on the day of the fancy dinner.

But on an occasion like Saturday's event, which he called one of the highlights of his life, Weber-Gale allowed himself a glass of white wine, a rare indulgence for an athlete who rarely stays up past 9 p.m.

The early bedtime is just one of the qualities that impressed Bellanger, a judge on the Food Network's "Cupcake Wars" who recently spent four days in Austin with Weber-Gale, eating barbecue and scoping out the pastry scene. Weber-Gale assured me that, at 26, he wasn't giving up his late-night escapades in pursuit of his professional dreams.

Among the guests were Austinite April Kubik, wife of University of Texas assistant swimming coach Kris Kubik, and her friend Deena Barksdale, who had traveled to New York just for the event and were headed back to Austin less than 24 hours after arriving.

By Monday morning, Weber-Gale was in Los Angeles for a photo shoot with Speedo, one of his sponsors, but the Saturday night fête was still on his mind. "It was an incredible night," he said. "One of the best of my life, for sure."; 912-2504