A Night at the Beard House, As Told From the KitchenSabrina Medora
June 17, 2019
When we say the James Beard Foundation is about good food for good, it’s not limited to sustainable agriculture, the Farm Bill, or reducing food waste. Another important aspect of our mission is highlighting the myriad hands that are helping to shape American cuisine. Below, Unplated's Sabrina Medora takes us behind the scenes at a Beard House dinner she helped to organize, exploring how a group of chefs from all along the East Coast came together over a shared vision to showcase their culinary philosophies and personal stories through an unforgettable meal.
If I didn’t know it was there, I’d walk right past the dark brown door set within the unassuming red brick. Sunlight reflecting off the gold plaque catches my eye. I step closer and read the words: “The James Beard House.”
Inside, heat greets me from the basement kitchen. It's larger by far than any normal kitchen in a Manhattan home, but still a tight squeeze for the 20-plus people running in and out today, prepping for tonight’s Heritage: East Asian Culinary Tour dinner. Manning the kitchen are six featured chefs: Danny Lee of ChiKo, Mandu, and Anju in Washington, D.C.; Masako Morishita of Otabe D.C. pop-ups; Judy Ni and Andy Tessier of Bao.logy in Philadelphia; Lucas Sin of Junzi Kitchen in New York City; and Nic Tang of DBGB in Washington, D.C. I bustle around them as the curator of this motley crew. They’ve been preparing for tonight for two months, and there’s still plenty to do.
Chefs arrive and set up their stations in the kitchen. Stocks and gravies bubble on the stoves. Whole pigs go into the ovens for further roasting. Most of the prep work has been done at the individual restaurants over the last four days, so today is reserved for reducing, simmering, slicing, and assembly.
The real camaraderie begins with dumpling duty. The dumplings are only part of one course, but everyone pitches in. We all get to know each other over the soothingly repetitive motions of folding hundreds of dumpling wrappers.
Over the course of the afternoon, I run up and down three flights of stairs. Menus need to be confirmed and printed. Introductions need to be written. The run of show needs to be finalized. Everyone is sweaty.
Beard House general manager Adam Jaffe calls a meeting in the kitchen. He puts us at ease as we run through the format of the evening and what to expect in terms of staffing, service, and presentation. Afterwards, he speaks one on one with each chef to discuss food allergies and accommodations.
There is no “downtime,” but I sneak a peek into the dining room, which was once James Beard’s salon and connected bedroom alcove. The tables are being set and sparkle with glassware for 5 courses. Downstairs, nervous energy builds.
The kitchen cam turns on and our all-hands meeting begins. Each chef plates and explains their courses to the servers and helping hands for the evening. The staff ask detailed questions, ensuring they know every facet of each dish in case guests inquire.
Guests are supposed to arrive at 7:00 P.M. but many come early. They walk through the kitchen to get to the terrace for cocktails and appetizers. The chefs have their game faces on. It’s their time to shine.
The cocktail reception goes by in a blink and before I can get settled, guests are filing up the back stairs into the dining room. It’s showtime.
7:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M.
I’m standing in front of a crowded dining room with a piece of paper trembling between my fingers. But as I begin to speak about the chefs, my breathing eases. Being a spokesperson for the people I admire is what brings me joy.
With every course, the accompanying chef and myself head upstairs to give a behind-the-scenes perspective. I beam, watching every gaze in the room fix on the chefs and react to the personal stories associated with their dishes. One guest stops me on my way back down to say, “Their stories are adding more flavor.”
Back in the kitchen, plating furiously continues. Course by course, 60 plates are lined up and every chef, sous chef, and line cook works together to execute the vision of one. I stand in the corner and marvel at the performance. Better than any ballet I have ever attended.
In the midst of serious work, laughter continues. Chef Lee introduces us to the “kimchi back shot” (whiskey chased with kimchi juice), and we bond over the initial grimace and pleasing result.
When the final plate is spot-wiped and “walked,” we break into applause as we wipe our brows and heave sighs of relief. We made it. Six months of concepting. Two months of planning. Hundreds of hours of navigating food and beverage regulations, delivery coordination, menu planning, and seating charts.
We embraced the crazy nerves that came with baring our souls for our loved ones and total strangers alike. We did it.
We finally sit down over beers and chicken tenders in a private room at a karaoke bar in Koreatown. One of the most memorable services of our lives is in the books. Now, it’s time for a little Purple Rain.
Sabrina Medora is the founder and lead writer for Un-Plated, a digital publication dedicated to telling stories of the people behind the food.