I have intentionally taken five days following the James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour to let the mesmerizing moments and tastes and sights sink in. It was truly an honor to not only sit amongst such beautiful, appreciative Memphis company, but also to stand in the kitchen with top chefs and mentors of our country's food landscape.
Though the wine glass count per table topped almost 75, and the amount of foie gras arguably confused Tennessee for France, the entire evening's James Beard experience could be stripped down to one word: refinement.
Cultured elegance and pure creativity poured out of the hearts of the seven participating chefs and onto the plates of the 180 attendees. They were not about boasting skill sets over one another; they were about sharing and honoring the culinary insights James Beard had directly and indirectly passed onto them.
Jeff, our James Beard Foundation host for the evening, opened the sit-down dinner with the captivating storytelling of James Beard's culinary legacy. Immediately following Beard's 1985 death in Manhattan, Wolfgang Puck cooked in Beard's kitchen for a party of twelve to celebrate the chef's life and lasting impact. To this day, chefs nationwide prepare out-of-this-world cuisine in the James Beard House. Memphis is lucky enough to have been selected as a Celebrity Chef Tour stop, during which chefs road trip to provide a matched dining experience to the original in Manhattan.
The Memphis Zoo was an optimal and unexpected location for the dinner; in fact, it's the first zoo in history to ever host a James Beard dinner. Weather could not have been more wonderful for an outdoor cocktail hour and sea lion show. The rustic Teton Trek dinner site was gorgeously decorated with warm linens and gold flatware.
Memphis' Chefs Andy Ticer, Michael Hudman, Kelly English and Phillip Ashley Rix knocked it out of the park, and they were joined by Atlanta's Steven Sutterfield, Oxford's John Currence, and New York's Michael Ginor.
Chef Steven Sutterfield, whose kind personality complements his insanely talented work with the South's seasonal vegetables, magically turned a first flavor of fall--the delicata squash--into candy. New York Chef Michael Ginor's foie gras with brandied pickled quince and champagne brought me back to sparkly summer evenings in Paris in 2013.
Chefs Andy and Michael prepared a dainty ditalini pasta by hand with Southern lady peas and an inimitable broth. Shaved muscadine grapes studded the top of each plate for a punch of sweetness. I'm a sucker for all pastas, but this pasta...Oh man.
Chef John Currence's explanation of his sausage-stuffed quail over sweet potato epitomizes the union of cooking and community. Chef devoted each component of his dish to another chef in the room: The sausage's texture taken after Currence's first bite of Andy and Michael's meatballs at Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen; the action of stuffing thanks to Chef Kelly English, who brilliantly stuffs everything; the pure sweet potato inspired by Satterfield's "insanely subtle things with vegetables." I agreed with Currence's remark that "there is no better justice to and interpretation of Italian food than Andy and Mikey."
That explanataion, to me, defines community and the reason we're all in the kitchen in the first place. Thank you, Chef Currence, for sharing the meaning of sharing.
I was lucky enough to stand in the prep line for Chef Kelly English's Lebanese-rubbed lamb; I watched the other chefs work to make English's plate look off-the-charts. Chef Andy Ticer spread the pureed cauliflower, while Chef Phillip Ashley Rix carefully placed each piece of lamb atop the base. It was a beautiful sight and, of course, made the first bite even more delicious. I'm refreshed by Chef Kelly's ability to show his well-rounded abilities, though he's known around here as the Creole master. I'll never forget his Asian-inspired dish at a Hog & Hominy fundraiser dinner. English proves over and over again that his work never settles; it's always evolving.
I realize I have yet to mention the wine pairings and libations, which consistently wowed every guest, my favorite being a special, limited edition Pinot Noir alongside Currence's quail. Mixologist Nick Talarico of Memphis' Andrew Michael trifecta prepared cocktails with herbs and fine liquors and gorgeous presentation.
The evening served as a collective toast to refinement; a proof that James Beard's original ideas are still thoughtfully impacting kitchens nationwide...even the Memphis Zoo's.