Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Beard and Beef

Going to the James Beard House in New York City is something akin to a pilgrimage for many people who inhabit that virtual place known as the food world. I had never been there until last Friday night. Once the renowned cookbook author’s home, the Greenwich Village brownstone now houses the offices of the foundation that carries on his mission of celebrating America’s culinary culture. I was there for a dinner in honor of the 30th anniversary of Certified Angus Beef ® , an organization based in Wooster, that has turned the breed into a brand synonymous with ultra premium meat. My name made the guest list courtesy of two local participants: Scott Popovic, the association’s Corporate Chef, and Manny Nieves, a Cleveland based food and beverage consultant and former sommelier for Classics who selected all the wines for the 7-course meal.

Popovic, a chef with an impressive resume that includes cooking time at XO, Moxie, and fire food and drink, brought together five other talented chefs to team up with him. All prepared a single course with the exception of Randy Sebastian from The Rio in Las Vegas: he made two, a cold palate cleanser and the dessert. Every dish included some form of Certified Angus Beef ®. All were superb.
Pictured from left to right are: Chef Randy Sebastian and his assistant/fiancee Irina, Manny Nieves, Chef Michelle Brown from Jag's Steak and Seafood in Cincinnati, behind her Chef JerryWeihbrecht of Zoë’s in Virginia Beach, Chef Dino Jagtiani, Chef Scott Popovic, and Chef Cedric Tovar of NY's Waldorf=Astoria.
I was especially impressed with Popovic’s braised chuck plated with ribbons roasted pumpkin puree. The meat, which redefined tender, was accompanied by paté of smoked apples that tasted like the very essence of autumn, and a heavenly cube of blue cheese-maytag and stilton combined- that was coated in panko crumbs and fried. Servers brought brandy soaked cinnamon sticks in little incense holders along with his dish, and lit them, adding an intense aromatic component to the experience.
Also impressive was Dino Jagtiani’s seared Prime dry-aged strip loin. The chef, who has two restaurants on the island of St. Maarten in the Caribbean where he was born, set off the moist, intensely flavorful meat with a dab of West Indian crab salad, whipped mustard, a caramelized shallot demi glace, and sautéed spaetzle that I’d watched him make that afternoon.

Charged with the prepping the sweet notes, Chef Sebastian had the biggest challenge which he met with great creativity and style, prepping a paper thing beef chip to go with a his Clementine-ginger sorbet, and using Certified Angus Beef ® brand pastrami and tangy Gruyere for a totally new take on the classic Monte Cristo sandwich. Click here to see the entire menu with wine pairings from The Hess Collection plus a list of the participating chefs and their bios.

A few words about the main ingredient. Certified Angus Beef®, which is sourced from a network of thousands of cattlemen all over the country, goes beyond the USDA Prime rating, meeting ten additional specifications for quality. The well marbled meat is the best of the best and only a small percentage of all beef achieves Certified Angus status. It’s really something special to eat. Luckily you don’t have to go to the Beard House or be me to taste it. Follow this link for a list of the many Cleveland area restaurants and grocery stores that serve and sell it. Some of the ranchers were in NYC for the dinner too and I really enjoyed chatting with them and having an opportunity to make the connection between producer and plate. They’re very proud of what they’re bringing to the table and thrilled that people appreciate it.

The house itself is a trip. Part shrine and museum, part dollhouse dining destination, the small rooms, filled with memories and memorabilia, still look and feel quite homey. I was there early in the day, before the tables were set up, and it was easy to imagine the big man himself walking through the door and holding court as he once did. It’s astonishing how much food comes out of the cramped basement kitchen, and how many people they manage to seat on three of the building’s four stories, filling every available inch of space. The chefs and servers who navigate this near impossible geometry with grace and efficiency deserve special recognition

The stellar food, fine drink and unique venue made it a memorable experience. But my visit here had a very personal significance too. When I first met and then married my husband in the 1970’s, his divorced parents both lived in the Village. We always walked down 12th Street right past The Beard House on our way to and from their respective apartments whenever we came from Cleveland to see them. Beard was in residence then, so there was no plaque on the front as there is now, nothing to set it apart from all the other buildings around it. The Foundation wasn’t formed nor the house set up to pay homage to him until after he died in 1985. But even if his name had flashed from the windows in neon lights, I wouldn’t have cared because I’d never heard of him. I was no food writer in those days, and had no idea that I’d become one. It was just another brownstone and I was just another girl with no idea what I’d do with my life.

It’s hard to find words to describe what I felt standing in that spot where the past and the present intersected so vividly. Amazement, definitely amazement about all that has happened to me and the career I’ve made for myself. Appreciation for all the good times, great meals, and hours of conversation with fascinating people that come with the work. Goofy happy to be there, proud of my accomplishments…and of course, hungry. So I went inside, eager and ready for more.

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