BY SEAN MURPHY | (SPECIAL TO THE ANNA MARIA ISLAND SUN)
One Hundred Sixty-Seven W. 12th St., New York City is a non-descript brownstone in Greenwich Village across from the old St Vincent Hospital. It is also James Beard’s House – the temple of American culinary art.
James Beard and Julia Child were responsible for making chefs cool. He encouraged young men to go to Europe to develop chef skills, wrote books on food and promoted restaurants and food events.
The House is operated by the James Beard Foundation, the foundation that awards the culinary Oscars: Best Chef of the Southeast, Best New Chef in the West, Best Food Writer, etc…treasured awards that are the bright pennies of chef’s dreams.
Invitations to perform a Beard dinner are generally extended after a secret visit from a couple of members of the Beard Foundation Board. They check you out, you become the topic of conversation over coffee in New York, and then you are asked to come to the city for an interview.
The interview was not as easy as I had hoped. My inquisitor was Mildred – the tough little lady who then ran the Beard House.
We had just won a Golden Spoon from Florida Trend Magazine. I thought it would be cool to wear my Golden Spoon lapel pin to my James Beard interview.
Mildred looked over my resumé, looked at me and said, “What the hell is a golden spoon except something to stick on your jacket?” (I still have nightmares about Mildred.)
We got our invitation and performed our first dinner there five years ago. We returned again this past week to perform another.
The logistics of a Beard dinner are daunting. Each dinner consists of four passed appetizers and then a full six- course presentation. Each item has as many as 10 ingredients. Thus there about 100 items that have to be sourced, delivered, prepped and transported into a kitchen that is not much bigger than yours. Coolers packed onto airplanes, suppliers shipping from all over the country, guys speeding around New York in taxi cabs in search of edible flowers, fresh micro-greens and grits.
The pressure of travel and preparation builds in intensity over three days. Finally the clock ticks down to the guests’ arrival.
All guests enter James Beard’s house the same way. Stone steps lead below street level and through a small hall and anteroom into a tiny kitchen stuffed with blazing hot equipment. Guests creep single file through the kitchen past a team of chefs who are working diligently. Photographers are popping pictures. Writers are asking questions. The crowd then stands elbow to elbow for an hour in a tiny patio for a champagne reception before climbing a set of stairs to the dining room, a room that regularly hosts 80 of the toughest food gangsters in the country – diners that demand you show all your best skills and serve the best food product in the world.
Once the guests are seated, the chef team is left to check food temps, fret over sauces and focus on the thousand things they have to do in the next two hours to launch the best dinner of their lives.
The logistics have been maddening. The expectations are massive. The pressure is almost suffocating.