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A couple dozen Denver chefs, total, have been asked to visit since the James Beard House began hosting dinners by the nation's culinary elite back in 1987. Only eleven local boys have made good since 1997, arguably the beginning of modern American gastronomy: the chef as celebrity and cooking as a spectator event.
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But as of July 15, there will have been three Colorado chefs in the James Beard kitchen in a little over a month (five, really, when you count the cooks who came along to help). And next season, a local guy who isn't yet thirty will three-peat.
The James Beard House, an unassuming brownstone in Greenwich Village, is a temple of American cuisine, the holy stamping ground of the country's greatest chefs, a living showcase of the best, at their best. Once the home (and workshop and science lab and love nest) of James Beard himself, it's now a front for the culinary equivalent of the Louvre and the Manhattan Project combined. Want to know where food comes from? It comes from there.
We're talking about the place that every terrified line cook with delusions of grandeur, pissing in his check pants on his first night on the line, dreams of going to someday, the same way every sandlot hotshot fantasizes about taking a swing at the bigs. We're talking about the place I could never get to as a cook, and rightly so.
Historically, the James Beard House has shunned Denver-area chefs, who've accounted for just 1 percent of the more than 3,000 chefs hosted there since the tradition began sixteen years ago. I don't think the snub has been deliberate, but in the coastal consciousness, Colorado is just another one of those square Midwestern states that important people have to fly over on their way in from California. But now the James Beard House has seemingly fallen in love with Denver's food scene, in much the same way I did when I woke up and smelled the goat cheese.
On Father's Day, Ian Kleinman -- now in the kitchen at Indigo (250 Josephine Street) and one of the best, bravest, weirdest and brightest young chefs I've ever met -- and his dad, Stephen Kleinman (from Centerplate Catering at the Colorado Convention Center), made the trip to New York City to cook a massive brunch for the Beard faithful.
The next day, Jeff Saudo from Mel's (235 Fillmore Street) was there banging out a feast of New American masterpieces. He brought Tyler Wiard -- a veteran of both Mel's and the Beard House and current top dog at the Fourth Story(2955 East First Avenue) --with him, along with pastry chef Robert McCarthy and buddies from all over. They crowded the tiny Beard House kitchen and sent out food to rave reviews. Saudo made the guests eat trotters -- pig's feet -- and they loved it.
The day after, Ian got a call from the Beard House staff. They wanted him back. Again. His first visit came when he was only 25, and he did that one with his pops as well. Now he'll be making a third trip there (this time solo), probably this winter. By then, he'll have turned the ripe old age of 27.
And on July 15, Bryan Moscatello from Adega (1700 Wynkoop Street) -- who's already won a half-dozen awards this year, both for himself and his restaurant -- will be headed for his third Big Apple throwdown at the Beard House. He went once by way of Bistro Toujours in Utah, and once with George Mahaffey from the Little Nell in Aspen, but this time it's all him. And the boy is bringin'it -- pulling out all the big guns and every trick in his repertoire. Going along to back him up will be Chris Farnum and Ryan Gaudin (both from Adega's front-of-the-house staff), Gabriel Balenzuela and Stradton Curry (both from the back), and Moscatello is hoping that "some of my new buddies from the best-new-chef awards will be able to come up with a couple of guys." He'd like to snag a body or two from Oceana in New York City to help fill out his roster, and he will be doing his prep work at Bon Appétitmagazine's kitchen in Manhattan.
Two weeks out, when I ask Moscatello if he's nervous about the upcoming gig, he says no. "The nervousness doesn't usually hit till about five on the night of the event," he insists. "Now that I've been through once with George and once by myself, I kinda know what I'm doing, where to go, what to bring."
And he's put together a menu that would shame any hackish, workhorse utility cook like myself. The Beard crowd should love it, because Beard himself was a shameless, tireless, ruthless promoter of American cuisine and American product, and Moscatello cooks almost exclusively New American style in the best (and only good) sense of the term: American ingredients and an American sense of pairing, executed with the combined techniques of centuries of world fusion.
He's planning seven courses, feeding seventy or so people -- every one of them a card-carrying foodie, chef, critic or dedicated gourmand -- and doing it all from a galley no larger than your average home kitchen. The meal will start with beet-cured salmon mounted on a buckwheat griddle cake with a fried-egg and tarragon emulsion -- and only get more complicated from there. Think about that the next time you're bitching about making nacho dip for your nephew's graduation party.
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