A few months have passed since Il Palio Chef Teddy Diggs cooked at the James Beard House in New York City for the first time, but an image from the experience is seared in his mind.
He’s essentially cooking three courses simultaneously. He’s practically throwing globs of caviar on plates for the second course. At the same time, he’s roasting lamb sausage in a pan for another dish and searing beef strip for the fourth course. Meanwhile, he’s panicking about a pasta dish not coming together for the 86 diners eagerly awaiting his meal.
“We were on the edge, man,” he said, now able to laugh about the tense situation in February. “There’s nothing like it.”
It’s considered a rite of passage for a chef to be invited to prepare a meal at the James Beard House, which was the longtime home of the legendary cookbook author and instructor who has an award named in his honor.
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Chefs are asked to prepare a large-scale meal – several hors d’oeuvres and five courses with paired beverages – for some of the culinary world’s most discriminating palates. The intimate meals are served to members of the James Beard Foundation, food critics, New Yorkers and tourists alike. For many chefs, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment that both celebrates their craft as well as their personal culinary accomplishments.
“It’s awesome,” said Ashley Christensen, owner of Poole’s Diner, Death and Taxes and several other Raleigh restaurants. “I think it’s something all cooks want to do at some point. ... I think just being there is so significant and so symbolic.”
Christensen, who won the Best Chef: Southeast James Beard Award in 2014, headed back on June 12 for a collaborative dinner with another James Beard Award winner, Chef Tandy Wilson of City House in Nashville, Tenn. Both are celebrating the 10th anniversaries of their respective restaurants. City House turns 10 on Dec. 10. Poole’s turns 10 a few days later on Dec. 13.
More chefs from North Carolina are spending time in the cramped kitchen of the unassuming three-story brownstone, breaking through a roster of chefs from bigger cities around the country.
Chef Vivian Howard of Kinston’s Chef & The Farmer did a solo meal in 2014. Charlotte chef and “Top Chef” contestant Jamie Lynch brought a menu inspired by his restaurant, 5Church, in February. And in April, Charlotte chef Clark Barlowe of Heirloom was joined by four other Southern chefs, including Chef & The Farmer’s pastry chef Kim Adams, for a dinner called “Small Towns, Big Flavors.” (Durham’s Fullsteam Brewery was represented with a porter paired with the fourth course, and owner Sean Lilly Wilson, a 2013 James Beard semifinalist, documented the experience on Instagram.)
As for Christensen, she’s cooked there four times. Her first solo dinner was when she was chef of the now-closed Enoteca Vin in 2005. She returned in 2012 as owner of Poole’s Diner and was thrilled to allow her Raleigh crew to share in the experience. She has cooked two other meals with other chefs.
“So much of it is just the legend that is James Beard,” Christensen says. “Much like we feel working in an old diner like Poole’s, you know so many things have happened. The room has such great ghosts.”
The legend of Beard
Beard, who died in 1985 at the age of 81, is often called America’s “first foodie.” A recent PBS episode of “American Masters” about Beard revealed he also was a pioneer of what’s now known as the farm-to-table movement, though it might not have been called that in his era.
He lived for years in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, but the house was more than a residence. He taught cooking classes in his kitchen, and the house was a hub of social events. After his death, chefs and friends decided there was a need to preserve the home, rather than let the building be sold. According to the James Beard Foundation, they raised enough money to put a down payment on the home.
The Beard House opened in 1986 with a vision of serving as “a performance space for chefs,” according to the Foundation. A young Wolfgang Puck, now a celebrity chef, was the first to cook there. Peter Kump, founder of a cooking school as well as the James Beard Foundation, wrote Puck to say that the tradition would continue of inviting chefs to cook there.
Today, the calendar is packed with regular dinners that showcase chefs’ culinary skills in a home that still shows signs of its original purpose. Guests walk through the kitchen to a glass room that overlooks a courtyard. That glass room happened to be where Beard showered, and the shower head is still on the wall, Christensen said.
“It’s not mistaking you’re in a home,” Christensen said.
Diggs said he remembers seeing Beard’s bedroom with mirrors all over the walls. It was a home for a man with a big personality.
But the kitchen is what stands out for any chef who has an opportunity to cook there. To start with, it’s pretty small. Visiting chefs quickly have to learn where equipment is and how to be efficient with the space, particularly when those diners walk through the space on the way to the dining room, peering at the food that’s being prepared and chatting up the chefs.
What also sticks out are the many photos of the culinary legends who have cooked there.
“Anyone you can imagine, a who’s who of cooking, have cooked there,” Diggs adds. “ Some in the kitchen are of James Beard and Julia Child cooking, doing a cooking class in the kitchen that you’re standing in. It’s surreal.”
Diggs said a chef needs to have confidence. Not only is it a challenge to get that multi-course meal ready in a short amount of time, chefs need to be ready for the pressure of guests’ expectations.
It’s only now, months after the fact, that Diggs considers his meal a success. He likens it to opening up a restaurant for the first time, but not getting a second or third night to improve.
“You can’t keep up fast enough,” he said. “You have your one opportunity to do the best you can. There’s an amount of nerves there.”
A significant undertaking
The menus are determined long in advance of the actual meal. Diggs presented a menu he had prepared three times before at Il Palio, an Italian restaurant inside the Siena Hotel in Chapel Hill. He calls it an Italian Olive Oil Road Trip, with each course showcasing an Italian region and a corresponding olive oil. That was the menu that he presented to the James Beard Foundation when they asked him if he had an idea for a dinner.
When Christensen cooked there in 2013, she was proud to showcase a Southern meal inspired by her own restaurant and with an eight-person crew who could share in the experience. “It was really neat to go and cook the food that’s truly my food,” she said.
For her upcoming meal with Wilson, it was a natural collaboration to assemble the menu titled “Ten Years of Awesome.” They will take turns preparing the main courses, which include octopus with buttermilk crema, an heirloom tomato pie, sour corn cake, sweet corn soup and two approaches to pork.
It’s a financial undertaking for a chef to go to the James Beard House. Restaurants sometimes have to close to allow the chef and his or her culinary team to travel. Chefs also have to pay for food and beverage that’s not donated. That may be why chefs of smaller restaurants join forces with other chefs for collaborative dinners. Those collaborative dinners, on the other hand, also allow the James Beard House to “diversify the offerings,” Christensen said.
She and Diggs said they feel like they’re representing the region and the Triangle’s culinary scene whenever they go to places like the James Beard House or big-city food festivals.
It’s also why they continue their relationship with the James Beard Foundation after the meal. This September, Diggs will host a Foundation fundraiser at Il Palio with a dream team of chefs, bakers and beverage professionals to execute a multi-course Italian feast. While each chef focuses on Italian food, their styles are different, and Diggs is excited to showcase the variations in Italian cuisine.
And that variety is what Christensen said she appreciates about cooking at the James Beard House. It’s a place where chefs, servers and bartenders alike are “viewed less as public servants” and can express themselves through food and drink.
“I think it really represents this focus on our craft,” she said. “You’re in a place where life became a celebration of what we live and breathe every single day. It’s less about feeling chefs are rock stars and more about celebrating the value of our work, as an art form.”
James Beard event in Chapel Hill
Chef Teddy Diggs has assembled his dream team of Italian chefs for a Friends of the James Beard benefit dinner.
▪ When: Festa Italiana is Thursday, Sept. 14. Cocktail hour begins at 6 p.m. Dinner is at 7:30 p.m., followed by a live auction.
▪ Where: Il Palio at the Siena Hotel, 1505 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill.
▪ Tickets: $175 for James Beard Foundation members. $185 for nonmembers. Call 919-918-2541 or go to ilpalio.com/festa-italiana/ or jamesbeard.org/events/chapel-hill-nc. Proceeds benefit the James Beard Foundation Scholarship Fund.
▪ Who: Chef Teddy Diggs of Il Palio will host the following chefs, bakers and beverage connoisseurs: Gabe Barker, Pizzeria Mercato (Carrboro); Brian Canipelli, Cucina 24 (Asheville); Craig Deihl, Cypress and Artisan Meat Share (Charleston, S.C.); James Beard Award winner Sarah Grueneberg, Monteverde Restaurant & Pastificio (Chicago); Matt Kelly and Josh DeCarolis, Mothers & Sons (Durham); Nick Stefanelli, Masseria (Washington); Pastry Chef Deric McGuffey, Il Palio (Chapel Hill); James Beard Award winner Peter Reinhart (Charlotte); Mixologist Bob Peters, The Punch Room (Charlotte); Sommelier Esteban Brunello, Bar Brunello (Durham)