Growing Boise Centre at center of holiday cheer

The Saint Alphonsus Festival of Trees fills the Boise Centre with holiday cheer each year.
The Saint Alphonsus Festival of Trees fills the Boise Centre with holiday cheer each year. Photos provided by Boise Centre

There’s a palpable buzz in the air surrounding the holiday festivities about to play out at The Grove Plaza. With the completion of the City Center Plaza, a vibrant urban project is helping to change the face of Downtown Boise.

Boise Centre is at the very heart of the action with the 33rd annual Festival of Trees fast approaching. The holiday soiree — with events from Nov. 22 to 28 — is the premier yearly fundraiser for the Saint Alphonsus Health System.

Over the years, the Festival of Trees has raised money for the Life Flight Network, the construction of the Central Tower at Boise’s Saint Al’s and other important projects. The beneficiary this year is the hospital system’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

“We are excited to be supporting the babies,” says Jill Aldape, director of the Saint Alphonsus Foundation.

As you would imagine, it takes a gaggle of volunteers (around 2,000 of them) to pull off such a massive holiday event.

“There’s a small army that helps out every year. It’s impressive, to say the least,” says Mary-Michael Rodgers, communications manager at the Boise Centre.

These benevolent souls include 25 people on the executive board committee and 100 committee chair leads who oversee the event. Other volunteers include the move-in crew, decorators, entertainers, fashion show models and merchants, celebrity judges and people who wrap and deliver the Christmas trees and wreaths that will be sold at the Gala Celebration auction on Nov. 22.

“We’re lucky to have so many people get involved,” Aldape says. “There’s no way we could do it without all of them volunteering their time.”

Boisean Cindy Williams has made herself available in various capacities at the Festival of Trees for more than 15 years. She’s a former committee member who looks forward to the event every year.

“I truly enjoy helping with the move-in, set-up and the tree wrapping,” Williams says. “It’s a lot of fun being involved with this event.”

Williams is open to doing any kind of job once the festival kicks into high gear.

“I’m a body to be directed. I always say, ‘Where do you need me? I’ll be there,’ ” she explains.

The crew at the Boise Centre is also bustling this time of year. The Festival of Trees kicks off a full schedule of private holiday events to follow. Boise Centre annually puts on around 200-225 conferences and community-oriented events, and in 2015 it generated more than $22 million in economic benefit to the Boise area, meaning visitors attending conferences and such spent their money around town on dining, lodging, recreation, transportation, retail and more.

And with the recent expansion of the Boise Centre, it looks like things are set to get even busier.

“We always have multiple events going on, so Boise Centre East gives us more space during the holidays and throughout the year,” says Chris Lockner, Boise Centre’s food and beverage director.

The Boise Centre East expansion recently debuted in the newly constructed City Center Plaza building across the fountain from the main Boise Centre, and this gives the convention center an additional 36,000 square feet of meeting and event space, including a new 14,000-square-foot ballroom. Boise Centre now has a total of 86,000 square feet of usable space.

“With Boise Centre East, we plan on expanding our events by 30 percent,” communications manager Rodgers says.

An overhead walkway concourse connecting the two buildings is expected to be finished in the spring.

It takes a small and highly efficient stable of employees to serve all the people who file in for the Festival of Trees and other events.

In terms of front-of-the-house service (bartenders, servers, bussers and set-up crew), the Boise Centre maintains a year-round staff of around 50 employees — many of whom work on an on-call basis. But they bolster that number with some seasonal workers to make sure everything goes smoothly.

“We hire 20 to 25 extra people during the holidays,” Lockner says.

Boise Centre recently hired a new executive chef. Wes Hamilton, who started in the position in early September, came to Boise from Wyoming, where he was the executive chef at the prestigious Jackson Hole Mountain Resort for the better part of 10 years.

Hamilton has lots of experience catering big events, but nothing close to the numbers he’ll be doing at the Boise Centre.

“This is larger for me, when you start talking about events with 1,000 people or more,” he says.

Hamilton is surely jumping into the pot and boiling with the forthcoming Festival of Trees, considering he and his crew will be feeding upward of 1,000 people at the gala dinner on Nov. 22, in addition to a packed house at the Fashion Show and Luncheon on Nov. 28.

“It’s going to be fun and exciting, and I’ll be able to put my own polish on the menus,” Hamilton says.

Hamilton manages a year-round kitchen staff of around of 20 cooks, bakers and dishwashers. That may not seem like many people for all these large events, but it’s a tight-knit crew that knows how to take care of business.

“It’s a well-organized kitchen,” he says.

Planning for the Gala Celebration three-course dinner begins in late summer of each year, when Boise Centre staff and the top brass at Saint Alphonsus get together for a tasting event.

“We usually do tastings in July to establish a menu,” Aldape of Saint Al’s says.

“In many ways, it’s really year-round when it comes to planning the event, though.”

This year’s Gala Celebration dinner menu features a salad course of baby spinach with strawberries, blueberries, feta and candied pecans tossed in tangy strawberry vinaigrette.

The double-protein entrée includes tender beef medallions with shallot and mushrooms in port wine demi-glace and Parmesan-and-herb-crusted salmon with beurre blanc. The main course will get served with balsamic-glazed asparagus and garlicky potato-leek au gratin with nutmeg cream.

Desserts will come in the form of apricot-filled sacher torte with chocolate ganache and chocolate-strawberry shortcake with chocolate chiffon.

The elegant-looking and festive dinner tables will have baskets of artisan breads and sweet cream butter plus freshly brewed Dawson Taylor coffee, hot tea and iced tea. This year’s wine selection includes True Myth Cabernet Sauvignon and Dry Creek Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc.

Both the gala dinner and Fashion Show and Luncheon are already sold out, but visit to check on waiting lists and to get other festival details.

Boise Centre hosts many food-and-wine events throughout the year that benefit other local nonprofit organizations, including A Chefs’ Affaire (September), Culinary Walkabout (May) and Wine, Women and Shoes in the spring. Learn more about the Boise Centre at

James Patrick Kelly, the Idaho Statesman’s restaurant critic, is the author of the travel guidebook “Moon Idaho.” Kelly also teaches journalism at Boise State University.

Saint Alphonsus Festival of Trees 2016

See the trees from Nov. 23-27 at the Boise Centre, 850 W. Front St., Boise. For more information on times and costs, visit

Soup bowls for a good cause

Head to the Grove Plaza on Nov. 25 for The Idaho Foodbank’s annual Empty Bowls fundraiser from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Here you will find more than 3,000 handcrafted ceramic bowls (made by professional potters, amateur artisans, students and various studios around town) that get filled with hot soups donated from local restaurants. Bowls of soup start at $10, and you get to keep the bowl. For more information, visit The Grove Plaza tree lighting ceremony will happen later that evening at 5:30 p.m.

Braised Apple Chicken with Roasted Butternut Squash

Serves 4 people

4 natural chicken breasts, skin-on, airline cut (ask your butcher)

3 rosemary sprigs, stem removed, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1 butternut squash, peeled, seeds removed and large diced

½ cup dried cranberries

3 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted slightly

2 Granny Smith apples, washed and finely sliced

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1 cup granulated sugar

1 kale bunch, washed, stem removed, finely chopped

½ cup heavy cream

¼ pound unsalted butter

Extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste


Combine half the rosemary, half the garlic and 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a container.

Add chicken and marinate for 24 hours. Remove from fridge one hour before cooking.

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.

In a small sauce pot, heat cream with garlic and 1 tablespoon of butter. Add a quarter of the butternut squash and simmer until squash is tender. Let cool in pot to room temperature.

Once it cools, pour contents into the blender and slowly begin to puree. Start on the slow speed and work your way up. Blend until smooth.

Return butternut squash to pot and season with salt and pepper; set aside.

Heat a sauté pan over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of butter, apples and the remaining rosemary.

Sauté apples for 2 minutes, then add the sugar. Stir for another 2 minutes, then add vinegar, cranberries and pine nuts. Cook for 2 more minutes over medium heat, then reduce to a simmer for additional 5 minutes. Hold warm.

In a large sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add remaining butternut squash and brown on all sides. Stir or shake pan frequently to avoid burning. Once caramelized, add kale and enough water to cover everything. Simmer for 4 minutes; season with salt and fresh pepper. Keep warm and covered.

Heat a large, oven-safe sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Season skin side of chicken with salt and pepper.

Sear chicken skin-side down until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Flip over and put the pan in the oven for 15 minutes.

Remove pan from oven, but be careful — the handle will be hot. Let the chicken rest for 5 minutes before slicing.

To serve, spoon some squash puree onto the plate, spoon the squash-kale hash onto the puree, lay sliced chicken over the hash, and then cover the chicken with the seasoned apple mixture.

Recipe courtesy of Wes Hamilton from Boise Centre

Pumpkin Cheesecake with Gingersnap Crust and Caramel Sauce

Serves 12 people

For the crust:

7 ½ ounces gingersnaps (or 1 ½ cups finely ground gingersnap crumbs)

¼ cup granulated sugar

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For the filling:

1 15-ounce can of pumpkin

1-1/3 cups granulated sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup heavy cream, cold

1 ½ pounds (three 8-ounce packages) cream cheese, room temperature

5 large eggs, room temperature

For the caramel sauce:

1 cup sugar

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

2 tablespoons water

1/8 teaspoon lemon juice

½ cup heavy cream, plus more if necessary

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

For the crust:

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Wrap a 9-inch springform pan twice with aluminum foil. Take care to pull the foil all the way up the sides so water cannot seep in from the water bath. Spray the bottom and sides of the pan with nonstick cooking spray. Pulse the crackers (or crumbs) and sugar in a food processor fitted with the metal blade until finely ground. Add the butter and pulse a few times to combine. Dump the moistened crumbs into the prepared pan, and using a measuring cup or glass, press into an even layer. Bake until fragrant and set, about 15 minutes. Cool on a wire rack while you prepare the filling.

For the filling:

Bring about 4 quarts of water to a simmer in a tea kettle (this will be used for the water bath). In a small, heavy saucepan, stir together the pumpkin, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and salt. Over medium heat, bring the mixture to a sputter, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring constantly for 5 minutes, until thick, bronzed and shiny. Scrape the mixture into a large food processor fitted with the metal blade and process for 1 minute with the feed tube open.

With the motor running, add the cold cream. Add the cream cheese (cut into chunks) and process for about 30 seconds, scraping the sides if necessary, or until smoothly incorporated. Add the eggs and process for about 5 seconds or until incorporated (be careful to not overmix).

Set the cake pan in a large roasting pan. Pour the batter into the cooled crust, and then pour enough boiling water into the large roasting pan to come about halfway up the side of the cake pan. Bake until the cake is just set, about 1 ½ hours. If it jiggles, it is not done. Carefully remove the roasting pan from the oven and set on a wire rack. Use a paring knife to loosen the cake from the sides of the pan. Cool until the water is just warm, about 45 minutes. Remove the springform pan from the water bath, discard the foil and set on a wire rack. Continue to cool at room temperature until barely warm, about 3 hours. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, at least 4 hours or overnight.

For the caramel sauce:

Stir the sugar, corn syrup, water and lemon juice together in a 2-cup, microwave-safe measuring cup or a medium glass bowl. Microwave until the caramel is pale yellow, or just barely taking on color, (about 4-8 minutes) depending on the strength of your microwave oven. It is OK to stop the oven and check often; try not to let it get too dark or it will burn. Let the caramel sit for about 5 minutes and it will gradually turn a rich amber color.

In the meantime, heat the cream in the microwave until hot. Once the caramel reaches the right color, add the hot cream a few tablespoons at a time. It will bubble up intensely but won’t overflow. After you have added all of the cream, stir and incorporate and then add the butter. Add more cream if the mixture seems too thick. Once the caramel cools, you can store it in your refrigerator.

For serving:

Remove the outer ring of the springform pan. Slide a thin metal spatula between the crust and the pan bottom to loosen, then slide the cheesecake onto a serving platter. If there is condensation on the top of the cake, you can blot it gently with a flat paper towel. Let the cheesecake stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes, then cut into wedges. Warm the caramel sauce in the microwave (it stiffens in the refrigerator). If too thick, add more heavy cream to thin it out. Drizzle the caramel sauce over each piece of cheesecake and top with whipped cream, if desired.

Note: You will need a large food processor, preferably with a 12-cup capacity to make the filling. If you don’t have one, use a Kitchen Aid mixer or electric beaters for the filling and a small food processor for the crust.

Recipe courtesy of Wes Hamilton from Boise Centre

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