"New York City is the culinary mecca of our country, if not the world," declares Hosea Rosenberg. "It's a place like no other, where ingredients and techniques of every conceivable style congregate. It's where the best chefs on the planet come to shine." See also: - The Denver FIVE culinary stars will cook at the James Beard House September 19 - Thanawat Bates, exec chef of the Palace Arms, on his James Beard Dinner nightmare
And last week, Rosenberg, along with Around the World in 80 Plates contestant Jenna Johansen; Tyler Wiard, exec chef of Elway's Cherry Creek; Samir Mohammad, who commands the kitchen at Lala's Pizzeria + Wine Bar; and Bistro Boys pastry chef Jessica Scott, touched down in the Big Apple to do exactly that: shine.
The local chefs, all of whom are members of FIVE, Leigh Sullivan's crop of hand-chosen kitchen magicians who commit to cooking together at various food and wine soirees and benefits for the duration of a year, gathered in New York City to cook at the James Beard House, arguably the country's most coveted culinary cultural center.
To be honest, the Beard House, named for the legendary chef and cookbook author, is incredibly modest, its brick facade so inconspicuous that you'd walk right past it if you didn't know it existed. And the historic interior of the four-story building, built in 1884, is just as unassuming as its exterior. It's full of hallowed hallways with floors that moan or squeal, depending upon the weight of your footstep, steep staircases, the smallest bathroom in Greenwich Village and nostalgic dining rooms shelved with hundreds of antiquated cookbooks and a kitchen barely bigger than Beard himself. There's nothing remotely fancy about it, but this charmingly understated tribute to Beard is the food world's equivalent of appearing on a Broadway stage.
And the beyond-exquisite meals that visiting chefs from all across the country cook in that tiny, hot kitchen -- where nervous, adrenaline-pumped chefs wielding sharp knives, cleavers, torches and china collide, and the clank and din from their efforts echo in the dining rooms -- explain why nearly every single dinner is sold out. Including the FIVE dinner, which sold out weeks in advance.
This, this is where just about every chef in America dreams of cooking. It's on their bucket list, and even the ones who have racked up multiple invites to strut their stuff at the Beard House rarely say "no" a second, third or fourth invitation. Despite its petite size, it's a powerful platform that's larger than life.
"I love how every time I walk into the James Beard House, it gives me a such a sense of overwhelming joy," says Wiard, who's now cooked there five times. "I never go to the James Beard House with any expectations. I'm just so happy to be able to cook with fellow passionate and talented chefs, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat."
"To cook at the James Beard House, one of the most recognized institutions in the culinary realm, is more than an opportunity -- it's a big fucking deal," agrees Rosenberg. "I did my best to honor the tradition and history of this remarkable organization, and I did my best to honor the great state of Colorado and all of the fine chefs, restaurateurs and industry professionals who call it home. We have so much to be proud of, and I'm proud to be a part of it."
This year's dinner, which I was lucky enough to attend (yes, I know I have a great job) and featured Wiard and his colleagues, as well as the talents of Brian Melton, Jonathan Greschler and Steven Waters, was a magnificent Colorado ingredient-inspired feast paired with wines, beers and cocktails for the elitist food cognoscenti. And there were plenty of obstacles that could have thwarted the verve of our chefs, including the fact that FedEx destroyed half of the product that Rosenberg had shipped from Denver.
But none of that mattered. "I loved that we were acting more as a team by helping each other out with prep, tasting and plating," says Scott. "We knew that this dinner was about being a team rather than an individual effort. We were representing Colorado, and we knew we had to bring it."
For his part, Mohammad says he'd cook in that kitchen again in a New York minute. "I'd go back as many times as they would let me return," he professes. "I feel like you're part of a secret society after you've cooked there. The whole experience was life changing for me, and it made me realize how much I still have to learn, and why I want to continue to strive to be a better chef and mentor. It made me realize why I really love this career."
Mohammad, along with Johansen and Scott, had never cooked at the Beard House before, and the venture, agrees Johansen, lived up to the hype. "The entire experience exceeded my expectations," she says. "I'd been dreaming about cooking at the James Beard House for years, and I drank in the history and the passion. It was everything I thought it would be and then some."
Johansen got an unexpected surprise, too. "On the first day we were there," she says, "I met the man who was Julia Child's first assistant, and he was all revved up and excited because Julia Child's menu was featured that night at the Beard House for what would have been her 100th birthday. He showed me personal photos, told me stories and really gave me a special peek at events that took place with Julia Child and James Beard years ago."
Next year, a new group of chefs will comprise FIVE, and they, too, will have the honor of cooking in Beard's famous kitchen. And the chefs who just returned from New York have a few nuggets of advice. "Prepare for the worst, because anything can happen," warns Scott. "You could lose your food, have no space, or find out about surprise vegetarian/gluten-free/lactose-intolerant guests. The best advice I have is to roll with the punches. That's key."
Rosenberg, who recovered from the calamity caused by FedEx, quips, "Don't try and ship soup!" On a more serious note, he says, be prepared to "cook in a small kitchen, with less than a day to get everything done. And bring your A-game, because New York City diners get to sample the very best of the best on a daily basis. You can't bring anything but perfection, or you won't look good."
Mohammad advises guest chefs to "go into it with an open mind and an open heart. Don't take the opportunity for granted, because it truly is the culinary mecca for chefs."
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For humbled food writers, too. I spent the entire evening of the FIVE Beard House dinner in the cramped kitchen with the chefs (mostly getting in the way and bumping butts with just about everyone), observing our remarkable culinary talent for several hours, and watching it all unfold in front of me is an experience that I wish everyone could repeat with me. There's always next year, but in case you're wondering what you missed this year, here's a photo recap.