John Legend performs at the afterparty.

Padma Lakshmi and Art Smith

Forget Taste of Chicago.

Common Threads—the charity cofounded by Oprah toque and Table Fifty-Two honcho Art Smith that teaches kids about nutrition and healthy cooking—held its third annual World Festival Monday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The scene was sort of like an all-star episode of Top Chef: Local bigwigs including David Burke (David Burke’s Primehouse) and Gale Gand (Tru) handed out haute-cuisine samples while schmoozing with guests. When I stopped by Rocco DiSpirito’s station, the chef, who gained national notoriety with his own reality show, The Restaurant, told me he’s starring in yet another cooking show, Rocco Gets Real, premièring in June on A&E. “Cooking saved me,” he said while feeding me bites of his goat cheese and onion salad. “I grew up in Jamaica, Queens, and there were a lot of distractions in every direction. I had friends hooked on drugs. I started cooking when I was 11.” The charming chef has another book coming out in September and says Chicago is his favorite city: “I always get the biggest crowds at Border’s here.”

Rocco DiSpirito and me

Padma Lakshmi, Top Chef host and former model, served as honorary chair of the event and roamed the MCA with fellow Top Chef judge Gail Simmons, of Food & Wine magazine. “I loved living here,” Lakshmi said of the time she spent in Chicago filming Top Chef’s current season. “I can’t believe I’d never been here before the show. I ate really well.” The five-foot-nine beauty said she gained 12 to 15 pounds during taping—not that you’d ever know it: “When we did [the first episode’s] challenge … I had to eat 16 different pizzas,” she said. Welcome to Chicago! As for her favorite Chicago restaurants, Lakshmi named Avec, Vermillion, and Blackbird, but wouldn’t pick a favorite chef. “I know all the guys here tonight; I’d get killed,” she told me—although she did say Smith’s mini sloppy joes were one of her favorite dishes of the evening.

The leggy brunette—who seemed to be having as much fun as the 600-plus partygoers who paid $250 to $500 a head—wore a gold-sequined Marc Jacobs dress and gold Sergio Rossi heels. “This dress is going to be auctioned right off my back,” she told me. No one ended up bidding on it during the live auction later that night, emceed by Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio and Simmons, but event organizers told me they plan on putting it back on the block at a future event.

Paula Deen

One of my favorite celeb sightings of the night was Food Network star Paula Deen, who arrived late in a grey and black fur coat. When I introduced myself and told her I wrote for Chicago magazine and, she didn’t miss a beat: “Oh, honey, do you want me to pose for Playboy?” she joked. Deen showed up about the same time as Grammy winner (and one of my top-five favorite musicians) John Legend, who was scheduled to play the private afterparty at the James Hotel. Legend and his dad made a quick loop around the event, then headed straight for the James.

About that afterparty: Before an intimate crowd of 200 or so, with me front and center, Legend crooned older hits (“Let’s Get Lifted,” “Stay with You”), as well as some newer ones (“Save Room” and “Maxine”) off his latest album, Once Again. I think I sang the second chorus to “Ordinary People” louder than he did.

And he débuted a song, “Good Morning,” telling the crowd it was his first time performing it for a live audience. After a 45-minute set, Lakshmi and Smith joined Legend onstage to thank everyone for coming. They had plenty of reason to celebrate: The night raised more than $370,000 for Common Threads.

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Foodie fans who couldn’t fork out $500 for a ticket can share snarky comments over half-priced entrees and cocktails (including the Quickfire and Padma’s Passion; $10.50) at Kit Kat Supper Lounge & Supper Club’s weekly Top Chef viewing party, Wednesdays at 9 p.m.


Photography: Sarah Preston