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.
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 Appétit magazine'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.
Moscatello will follow the salmon with anise-seared turbot and lobster-stuffed potato cannelloni with pea-tendril salad (I didn't even know peas had tendrils); a rabbit-stuffed onion ring capping a plate of sautéed asparagus, sweet shallots and summer truffles; lavender-skewered quail on white grit cake with apricot marmalade; roast Sika deer (medium-sized Japanese critters -- taste just like chicken) over chanterelle mushrooms and English peas in a sweet sherry reduction; pave d'auge (a kind of soft milk cheese -- tastes just like chicken) aux brioche with white peaches; and a goat-cheese chiffon and pepper-macerated strawberries -- such a great goddamn way to end a meal like this that I'm pissed I never thought of it.
After that? For Moscatello's sake, hopefully a round of applause, a cold beer at the hotel bar and a solid night's sleep, because he certainly isn't going to be getting much sack time in the days leading up to the dinner. Cooking at the Beard House ain't all champagne and Bundt cake. There are a million potential disasters to fret about.
"You know they don't pay for any of this, right?" Ian Kleinman asks when I sit down with him to get the Beard House scoop. "You've got to get everything yourself -- all the food, all the wine -- and then you've got to get it all there. When they asked me to come the first time, I seriously took out a second mortgage on my house to pay for it. But what was I going to say? No? No way...."
One of the biggest hurdles for any chef is getting all the food and wine to the Beard House. This time around, Ian and his dad had some help getting themselves there from their respective employers, but no one kicked in anything to ship the seventy macadamia-nut-crusted lamb chops that they'd prepared back in Denver. No one was sourcing that Legerski Farms smokehouse bacon for them; when they wanted the absolute best product to go with their quail-eggs Benedict with miso hollandaise, they had to find it themselves. And pay for it themselves, which still didn't discourage them from making citrus-crusted lobsters in a blood-orange beurre blanc, topped with caviar.
"You beg," Ian says. That's how the game is played. You visit every purveyor in town, explain that you're going to the James Beard House and that you need a break. You try to get the stuff free first -- trading one night's product for a mention in the press of who was there for you in your moment of need. When that tactic (inevitably) fails, you try to get your ingredients below cost. Then at cost. And when that doesn't work, you start all over again.
After you've got your suppliers set up and all the necessaries tucked away in the coolers, you start to prep. In your off time (which is minimal for any chef successful enough to be invited to the Beard House in the first place), you start making those things that absolutely cannot be made in an unfamiliar kitchen with unfamiliar tools. For Ian, this was the seventy portions of orange gelato for his baked Santa Fe dessert. It was the smoked buffalo tender. It was a half-dozen other items that he couldn't make outside of his own galley at Indigo.
And then, you trust all of this -- thousands of dollars' worth of produce and hours and hours of work -- to the fine people at UPS or Fed Ex. Or you can take your chances with the DIA baggage handlers. Which Ian did -- delicately packing all of his bacon and $2,500 worth of knives along with his socks and chef coat. Luckily, everything he absolutely, positively had to have there overnight got there like it was supposed to. He was fortunate; other chefs haven't been.
"If something goes wrong, the Beard House has purveyors they work with who can get you stuff at cost," Ian says. "But think about it. You've probably already spent every dollar you have just getting there."
Ian and his father did their night-before prep work in the kitchen of the Metropolitan Hotel, where they were staying. They spent hours sorting through freezer boxes, cutting, boiling and grinding out honeydew ice for seventy bowls of yellow watermelon soup. At five the next morning, they went over to the house that Beard built.
"It was amazing, man," Ian says. "I mean, these were his pans. This was his stove."
And in his tiny, ten-by-twelve kitchen, Ian spent the longest day of his career. And not two days later -- long before he had recovered from his exertions leading up to the meal -- the Beard House called to ask if he'd do it all again.
"I said yes, of course," Ian tells me, laughing just a little. "I mean, what was I gonna say? No?"
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