COOKING IN A CULINARY MECCA
“Good food has a magic appeal. You may grow old, even ugly, but if you are a good cook, people will always find the path to your door.” – James Beard (1959)
There is a house in the West Village of New York City that, to the naked eye, looks utterly unremarkable—a brownstone squeezed between other similar brownstones, its lower windows fortressed by steel bars, its interior secrets locked in the anonymity of the cityscape. Pedestrians pass it without a glance. Neighborhood residents might pause to let their dogs sniff whatever warrants sniffing that day, but otherwise you would never guess this house is the culinary center of the universe.
That is, until a van comes screeching to a halt on the one-way street in front of it, opening its doors to disgorge a team of intensely focused and slightly frazzled chefs. The trunk springs open, and it’s all hands on deck to unload seemingly endless heavy boxes and whole hogs past the bewildered dog walker and through the front door. Traffic backs up, horns blare, taxi drivers curse. Chefs curse back. It is only then that you might notice the modest brass plaque to the left of the entrance: THE JAMES BEARD HOUSE.
The name James Beard might not ring bells for everyone, but in this era of celebrity chefs and food shows, many people acknowledge the James Beard Awards as the culinary equivalent of the Oscars. Short of actually winning a Beard Award (the ultimate feather in a chef’s cap) is the honor of being nominated for one. And short of that is the coveted invitation to come cook at the James Beard House.
And this was indeed Beard’s house, until his death in 1985. He lived a very full eighty-two years, cooking madly, spitting out cookbooks, making TV appearances, and generally getting people excited about food. His home was a revolving door for chefs, food writers, culinary instructors, students, and dinner guests. When he died, his friend Julia Child suggested that Beard’s brownstone on West 12th Street should somehow be memorialized—turned into a foundation to further the interests of the food community. Culinary friends raised the funds to purchase the house, and the James Beard Foundation was established. When Wolfgang Puck offered to throw a dinner party there, the idea was hatched to stage guest chef dinners once a month. These dinners were so popular that the Beard House now hosts roughly twenty dinners per month, making this humble little brownstone the prime pop-up showcase for culinary talents worldwide.
THE SLIGHT SETBACKS
The featured chef on this particular day was Daniel Doyle of Poogan’s Porch in Charleston, South Carolina. It would be Doyle’s first time cooking at the Beard House, a rite of passage akin to losing your virginity, so there was a palpable electricity in the air and a little nervousness, too. And for good reason. Doyle had overnighted eight boxes of carefully packed supplies, local ingredients, and prepped items, some on dry ice. But by midday, only four of those eight boxes had arrived.
For out-of-town chefs cooking at the Beard House, Murphy’s Law is often unforgiving: if you overnight a special, rare, and/or essential ingredient, UPS will misplace it, at least temporarily. If one of your boxes starts to leak, as was the case with northwestern chef Adam Hegsted, the delivery guy might make the command decision to throw it in a dumpster (there goes your pine sorbet and rye crème fraîche, along with your hand-picked stinging nettle, gooseberries, and fiddlehead ferns). Even if you confirm that your wild game and local seafood made the flight, as was the case with Mississippi chef John Currence, Delta might forget to put it in their refrigerated section, in July. Or if you are Memphis chef Andreas Kisler cooking at the Beard House for the first time, all of your prepped food might be lost in shipping.
Herein lies the true measure of a chef: how he or she handles a crisis, or for Doyle, a series of crises. Since chefs aren’t allowed into the Beard House until the day of the dinner, Doyle had arrived a day early to start prepping at a nearby culinary school that graciously opened its doors to him. But the culinary student who was supposed to let him in had overslept and lived far out in the Bronx. Once someone finally opened the door, Doyle was able to assess the boxes he had shipped up only to find that half hadn’t arrived, including his pork bellies, his sweet potato and green tomato pickles, the nitrous gas for the panna cotta foam, and his collection of special knives.
Luckily for Doyle, the suckling pigs did make it, so he located the school’s smoker and set the sixteen-hour smoking process in motion—only to discover four hours later that that particular smoker automatically shuts off after one hour. A slight setback. While Doyle made some urgent phone calls in an attempt to track the missing packages, the director of the culinary school helped him source some ingredients locally. Meanwhile Doyle’s assistants, Chef de Cuisine Benjamin Harris and Sous Chef Jeffrey Myers, got to work on making the braises, raviolis, barbecue sauces, smoked tomato ketchup, and keeping a close eye on those smoking pigs.
When Doyle was confident they had prepped everything they needed to prep, the chefs headed out for a taste of the “City That Never Sleeps.” They hopped in cabs, tooled around Times Square, and ended up in Little Italy eating gnocchi at two a.m. A few bourbon drinks took the edge off and they slept like babies.
THE FINAL COUNTDOWN
The next morning, bright and early, the chefs loaded up all their prepped goods, along with a few straggling packages, and settled into the cozy kitchen in the basement of the James Beard House. They had been warned that the kitchen space was small by restaurant standards, but they adjusted quickly. Poogan’s Porch is, after all, an historic house itself.
When the package of pork belly finally arrived, Doyle sent it straight to the trash can. He didn’t want to go down as the chef who made everybody sick at the Beard House. By then, he had already procured replacement pork belly from upstate New York.
Shrimp arrived overnight from Georgetown, South Carolina, ready for pickling. The chefs set about making the smoked bacon dust for the chicharron appetizers and cranking out hundreds of pimento cheese deviled eggs. Moment by moment, they crossed items off the prep list, the day’s challenges seeming less and less daunting. The kitchen grew silent as the chefs fell into the familiar dance and cadence of executing a well-choreographed meal. Sommelier (and Poogan’s managing partner) Brad Ball shuffled up and down the stairwell making sure everything was in order. Sous Chef Myers’s right arm tattoo, a literal call to arms, embodied the moment: mise en place (“everything in place”). Doyle donned his signature seersucker chef pants and starched chef jacket just in time for the guests’ arrival.
For a guest at the Beard House, the first step of the experience is to funnel single file through the working kitchen, greeting the chefs and watching the food come together, en route to the back garden (or enclosed greenhouse in cooler months) to enjoy pre-dinner cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. A bust of James Beard peaks out from the foliage, and a rotating exhibit of culinary-themed artwork adorns the greenhouse walls.
THE DINNER PARTY OF YOUR LIFE
This night roughly sixty guests from near and far mingled as they sipped champagne called La Bubbly Brut from Brad Ball’s own label, La Wine Agency. They schmoozed and chatted and nibbled on perfectly fried pork skins dusted with smoked bacon, chicken liver pate crostini, pimento cheese deviled farm eggs, and flash-fried chicken confit that had been vacuum-sealed in duck fat before frying to make it indulgently delicious.
The guests then headed upstairs for the main event. Circular tables for groupings of six to ten were positioned throughout James Beard’s former living room and study, each table brimming with glassware indicative of the pairings to come. Mason jars filled with cotton sprigs served as centerpieces (many of which, as luck would have it, had broken in shipping and had to be replaced in a last-minute scramble across town, but that’s yet another story). Bookshelves full of Beard’s cookbooks and menus lined the room. Some guests opted for the six-person table on the third floor situated on a raised platform where Beard’s own bed once stood (the mirror-lined ceiling raised some eyebrows). James Beard himself, the legendary bald gastronome dubbed the “Dean of American Cookery” by the New York Times in 1954, watched posthumously from his vantage point in various portraits positioned above the crowd. Judging from the twinkle in his eye, this gathering met his approval.
One by one, the courses appeared. First came South Carolina pickled shrimp over housemade ravioli stuffed with pimento cheese and flavored with thyme, swimming in a light green tomato jus (green tomatoes stewed with ham hocks, onions, white wine, and rosemary then strained through a chinois) and topped off with microgreens. Next came an heirloom tomato and grilled peach salad with crispy country ham and basil-bourbon vinaigrette sweetened with local honey.
For a third course, pan-seared scallops were served with a dab of bacon emulsion alongside a wedge of compressed watermelon encased in toasted benne seeds. The fourth course was stacked high with flavor and texture: a crispy piece of seared snapper atop thinly shaved watermelon radishes resting on the soft pulled meat of a smoked suckling pig, all of which towered on a crispy grit cake whose creamy interior revealed smooth, cheddary, stone-ground yellow grits. All of these flavors were pulled together by the vinegary bite of a North Carolina barbecue gastrique.
The fifth course showcased pork belly in three ways: one with a smoked tomato ketchup, one mustard-based served with a red slaw, and finally an Asian-inspired variation with a sweet-and-sour sauce. Doyle isn’t embarrassed to admit that the inspiration for this dish stemmed from watching his children devour McNuggets and sample various dipping sauces. Doyle’s grown-up twist on the McNugget is a pork belly French fry. Hey, why not?
From the busy kitchen below, you can’t witness the guests enjoying your meal, but if you step out into the stairwell, you can hear the joyful chatter, audible approval, and clinking of glasses from above.
Each course was perfectly paired with Ball’s wine selections from Austria, California, Germany, and Hungary, all from vineyards he had visited personally. Ball slipped downstairs to check on the progress of the dessert course, banana pudding panna cotta—Doyle’s upscale, inventive twist on a Southern classic (a phrase which pretty much sums up his entire cooking philosophy). The dispenser on the white chocolate foam had jammed and Doyle was shaking it around as everyone ducked for cover.
“Hey, Dizzle,” said Ball. “How’s it goin’?”
“Just another day in paradise, man,” quipped Doyle. He grinned as the foam finally started to flow.
“Lookin’ strong!” said Ball, heading back up for the evening’s close. Fait accompli, the guests fully satiated, the team of chefs was invited up for a round of applause, then invited back on the spot to come cook again the following year. Poogan’s Porch, the little restaurant tucked in a Victorian house on Queen Street in Charleston, had proven it could pull its weight on the national stage.