Behind the Beard

Why local chefs move heaven and earth to feed New York's face.

James Beard's culinary career was drawing to a close before he became an icon of American cuisine. In the 1950s and '60s, the very idea of "American cooking" was dreadfully out of fashion with the chattering classes: too Ladies' Home Journal and Family Circle. In the 1970s, Julia Child was seen as the standard-bearer of all that was fine (and French, naturally) in American fine dining. It's a satisfying irony that Child did more than anyone else to turn Beard into a kitchen god and, after his death, to turn his modest home on the southern tip of Manhattan Island into a place of pilgrimage. By dint of ingenious remodeling, his basement kitchen has been turned into a dining room where 75 eager eaters can be accommodated, assembling five, six, seven nights a week to feast on multicourse meals created by America's most ambitious chefs in a space a home cook preparing dinner for eight might find cramped. Two Seattle-based eminences hit the Beard House in one 10-day period in June. On Thursday, June 3, the Georgian Room's Gavin Stephenson made his fifth appearance there, while Saturday, June 12, Columbia Winery's vintner in chief David Lake shows off his wines to the accompaniment of food and pastry by the Barking Frog's Tom Black and Christina Longo. Logistically, the mere run-up to a Beard banquet is a nightmare. Unwilling to take a chance on the availability of food and condiments in New York, Beard chefs take their support staff and most of the makings with them, despite the risk of depending on airline baggage systems. (On one of Stephenson's forays, the coolers ended up in Texas.) Once in town, the cramped quarters of the Beard House entail borrowing kitchen space from friendly Manhattan colleagues. Considering the inconvenience, and considering the cost (including airfare, upward of $10,000 for a one-night stand), why does anybody bother? On the practical side, it's an agreeable item to add to one's vita—the Beard Foundation's board is salted with some of the biggest names in food and food journalism, so an invitation to show one's stuff in the belly of the American culinary mothership is evidence that one has achieved more than purely local recognition. Appearing at the Beard House is widely regarded as a first step toward receiving one of the annual James Beard awards. Though chefs are nominated for awards by their regional peers, who are most likely to be familiar with their level of accomplishment, few, if any, have received that ultimate accolade who haven't paid their Beard basement dues. The lucky folks who dine on what is arguably the best food the nation has to offer aren't, in the main, culinary professionals, but they're not your typical foodies, either. Annual individual "membership" in the Beard Foundation costs from $125 to $275, with professionals paying the top rate in recognition of the membership's networking value. People residing within 75 miles of New York (and hence likely to use the facilities more often) also pay a premium, but there are members all over the country and round the world. In a way, membership gives a frequent visitor to the Big Apple access to a kind of prestigious private eating club with ancillary boasting rights back home in Peoria. Few Beard chefs just blow into town, cook, and head home. For weeks before the visit, they hearken to the buzz, noting names of the latest hot spots in (sorry, Paris) the dining capital of the world, eager to pick up tips on the next big food thing: Is foam really catching on? Is foie gras over? When professional cooks aren't cooking, you'll usually find them eating, and for dedicated browsers, Manhattan is the Elysian fields. The sheer difficulty of mounting a Beard banquet may be its greatest charm. It's like war: War is hell, but at least every veteran earns the right to reminisce about its rigors. With five visits under his belt, Stephenson has more than his share of stories of what went wrong and how the bacon was saved at the last minute. But with a big hotel chain (the Fairmont Olympic, home to the Georgian Room) behind him, he travels pretty much first class these days. Probably no other Beard cook can claim the battle scars Philip Mihalski of Nell's can exhibit. Having financed the whole expedition from Seattle to 167 W. 12th St. in Greenwich Village himself, instead of serving his exquisitely planned banquet to a few dozen discerning diners, he ended up catering to emergency workers from the hospital across the street on the afternoon and evening of Sept. 11, 2001. In Seattle, at least, Beard-bound chefs have begun sharing their sumptuous imaginings with those of us who won't be visiting New York just now. Tom Black's Beard lineup, featured at the Barking Frog since early May, ends this week, but if you hurry you can still savor the seared scallops in truffle emulsion, poached Columbia sturgeon, and espresso-rubbed venison loin. Stephenson's smoked sturgeon snow cones; lobster, crab, and caviar salad; and braised oxtail–topped tenderloin will be available at the Georgian Room through June. It'll set you back $125 a head, $10 more than nonmember guests had to pay at the Beard House last week, but think how much you'll save on airfare.

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