The basil tuile was not cooperating.
Chef Thomas McKeown probably wanted to mutter a few Gaelic cuss words as the native Irishman dealt with a leaning stove that wouldn’t deliver even heat to his thin, webbed basil wafers.
Troubles with tuiles didn’t come as a surprise, really. After all, McKeown was cooking in the Beard House. It’s an old house — 175 years old, to be exact. The kitchen is cramped, the floor sags, the ceiling is low and the pass is narrow — hardly ideal conditions for preparing a six-course dinner for 89 scrutinous patrons of gastronomy willing to pay $140 apiece.
“I’ll make it work,” McKeown said as he scraped the burning basil batter off the flattop and made another attempt, squeezing more green liquid from the squirt bottle onto the hot grill. “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome,” he said.
McKeown’s attitude was shared by every chef in the kitchen on June 7, the day of the Georgia Grown dinner at the James Beard House in New York City.
The house at 167 W. 12th St. in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village is the former residence of American cook, cookbook author, teacher and TV personality James Beard. His death in 1985 prompted his peers, supporters and students to create the James Beard Foundation, a society devoted to preserving and continuing his work as a champion of American cuisine.
His four-story townhome became the nexus for the group, and the kitchen, a performance space for chefs. Treating the culinary arts as an art form and using Beard’s kitchen as a stage “was pretty radical 33 years ago because chefs were not known,” said Izabela Wojcik, program director for the Beard House.
In her 17-year tenure at this position with the Beard Foundation, Wojcik has planned hundreds of events. Roughly 200 dinners are hosted annually at the home. The past five years have included an annual Georgia Grown dinner featuring products from the Peach State prepared by chefs who work here. Sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Big Green Egg and Springer Mountain Farms pay for the event and associated costs such as the chefs’ travel and lodging.
“Tonight’s dinner tells a story about one particular place: Georgia,” Wojcik said. Every Georgia Grown at the Beard House is a study in time of Georgia foodways, yet each is unique because the menu reflects the style of cooking of the chefs who prepare it. Diners for this typically sold-out dinner do, however, come with expectations of supping on certain Georgia classics. “There better be peaches!” Wojcik said.
There would be peaches, many peaches.
The cast and crew
A dinner at the Beard House is not a party thrown together in an instant. It takes months of planning. That began last year when six chefs were selected among applicants vying for a yearlong tenure as Georgia Grown chefs. In that capacity, they serve as culinary ambassadors for Georgia and highlight food and beverage commodities from the state at various public and private events, an opulent dinner at the Beard House among them.
This year’s chef lineup included Julio Delgado of New Realm Brewing (and soon-to-open Minnie Olivia in Alpharetta), Jessica Gamble of KR SteakBar, Greg Lipman of Piastra, Thomas McKeown of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, Christian Perez of SweetWater Brewing, and Deborah VanTrece of Twisted Soul Cookhouse and Pours. The chefs were led by Holly Chute, executive chef for the Georgia Departments of Agriculture and Economic Development, and the face of the Georgia Grown program. Accompanying them was Savannah Sasser, executive chef of the Expat in Athens.
“I bring Savannah every year because she’s super organized,” Chute said. “It’s a flawless execution having her there. She knows the routine and what needs to be done.”
Beverage pairings would be handled by seasoned barman Jerry Slater, who opened the Expat with wife Krista last year. Besides batching up a Southern riff on a New York Sour and a gin and tonic featuring local Old Fourth Ward gin for the cocktail reception, Slater would tootle around North Georgia, tasting his way through vinos to ultimately settle on bottles from Wolf Mountain, Tiger Mountain, Habersham, Horse Creek and Frogtown wineries.
Three months prior to the big day, the group convened on a conference call to plan the menu and discuss logistics. Each chef needed to conceive of a passed hors d’oeuvre as well as a composed dish for the sit-down portion of the meal. Numerous proteins needed to be incorporated into the menu: beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, trout, quail and country ham. Also, loads of produce — from peanuts and pecans to Vidalia onions and field peas.
Consider the dishes carefully, Chute and Sasser cautioned them.
“The fryer is small,” Chute said.
“We can’t have three people doing passed hors d’oeuvres with a fryer,” Sasser added.
“This is the first time I’m going out of state to cook,” Perez piped up. “How does the food work?
“In the past, when it came to shipping food, we’ve flown it, but we’ve also hired a driver,” Chute replied. “That’s the best option because we can bring it the morning we are going to prep and it’s not juggled around.”
While the Beard House provides cooking equipment and serving ware, chefs must bring all the food and beverages. Many a visiting chef can tell stories of food lost, damaged or spoiled in transit to the Big Apple.
“The more you can get done in a VacPac or pressed and wrapped — you want to do it as far to the finishing point that you can,” Chute said. “Anything that can’t be done ahead, we’ll do there.”
Slowly but surely, ideas about Ossabaw chorizo transformed into Lipman’s passed nibble of a chorizo and Thomasville Tomme croquette. Gamble would utilize the Big Green Egg for smoked trout with pickled cucumber on a green peanut cracker. VanTrece would dish up Georgia shrimp over a hearty field pea and country ham bread pudding with a collard green and kale pistou. A combination of Southern tradition and modern cooking techniques, this would be a meal to remember.
On May 28, the team held a preview dinner at White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails.
“Georgia Grown is headed to New York for the fifth time. We’re the only state to have a James Beard Foundation dinner,” said a proud Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black in his opening remarks.
Among invited guests were numerous sponsors, including small-business owners, like Beautiful Briny Sea founder Suzy Sheffield, whose products were among those in food-filled swag bags.
The dinner was more than a chance for the hometown to experience local culinary excellence. It was an opportunity for the chefs to practice working together and to dial in their courses. Chute, Sasser and even Lael Fredsell, food and beverage program manager for Gumbo Marketing, a close partner with the Georgia Grown program, would all be taking notes during this trial run. Were any ingredient changes necessary? Did a technique need to be changed to keep with the pace of the meal? Did portion sizes need adjusting?
“It always improves from the preview dinner,” said Fredsell, who has assisted chefs from around the country with 15 dinners at the Beard House.
The final countdown
It was 7:30 a.m. June 7. The truck on loan from Edgewood butchery and market Chop Shop had pulled up to the curb at 167 W. 12th St. Almost everything — even the sorbet and ice cream — survived the overnight 860-mile road trip. The exceptions: Raw Georgia shrimp was too warm to serve safely, and the fennel crackers needed as the hand-held vessel for White Oak Pastures duck rillettes with peach mostarda were crushed.
“I have them picking up some fennel and we’ll knock it out real quick,” Sasser said. “It happens.”
The kitchen was abuzz with unpacking action. By midmorning, smells of sauces permeated the room. The Beard front-of-house service team was busy transforming sitting rooms on three levels into elegant dining areas.
Meanwhile, Perez was trying to help McKeown solve his tuile problems as they strove for perfection in an unfamiliar kitchen. Her solution to the slanted stove was to nestle a pot handle under the skillet to get a level cooking surface. Still, the tuile wouldn’t take. And there were 100 of them to make.
Fredsell was called in to help put out that fire. Head to Target and buy an indoor electric grill. In the end, McKeown rummaged through the kitchen to find an electric cooktop, placed it on the level countertop and entered the tuile-making zen zone at 11:48 a.m.
The team would be preparing 13 composed dishes, plus a few baked goods for bread service, in a matter of hours. That was enough to make even a seasoned home cook-hostess freak out, yet calmness pervaded the air. That is, when tunes weren’t blaring from Perez’s phone, prompting the chefs to sing along to tunes by Journey, Billy Joel, Foreigner, Thompson Twins and Whitney Houston.
“I wanna dance with somebody,” sang a chorus of voices.
At 5:30 p.m., Sasser and the chefs assembled in the kitchen to walk the black-clad service staff through each dish, the Georgia ingredients that give it a sense of place and the 30-second elevator speech about why it mattered.
At 7 p.m., guests began to trickle in, directed to the cocktail reception in the backyard patio, an unexpected urban oasis in a city of high-rise buildings. Commissioner Black was there again, toasting the event with a glass bottle of Coke, which he referred to as “the elixir of the South.”
The culinary arts hold a deserved place among fine arts not only because edible creations can look and taste exquisite, but also for the manner in which they are prepared. To watch a team of chefs work together to plate an intricate dish is a sight to behold. It is an intricate dance as a plate moves down the line, each person adding the next component, with absolute exactness, striving to create a dish that began as an idea in someone’s head. And like a reporter on deadline, time is of the essence. Move, move, move. There was no time to stop. There were 89 plates to fill.
As soon as one course was off, assembly began for the next. They had 10 to 15 minutes to perform each act.
The last plate bearing Delgado’s skirt steak was whisked from the room. It was now center stage for McKeown’s pecan financier with grilled peaches, honey ice cream and honey powder — made with the honey produced by bees he keeps on the rooftop at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta — and a garnish of perfectly set green basil tuiles.
One more dance on the line and the final act was over. The team gathered in a circle, arms wrapped around one another’s shoulders, swaying and singing “I wanna dance with somebody” as guests began to file out.
Jo and Henry Strouss have been members of the James Beard Foundation for the past three years. The New York City residents attend dinners here about four times a year. “This is the only one we do on a regular basis,” said Jo Strouss about the Georgia fete. The enthusiasm of the chefs, the presentation of dishes, the focus on Georgia (“It has such an identity. It accents Georgia products.”) are all reasons why they reserve a seat at the table when Georgia is showing in NYC.
“We plan to come back next year,” Jo Strouss said.
See you for the encore.