Upon his death in 1985, James Beard’s close friend Julia Childs described the larger-than-life man behind an exquisite culinary career: “he loved people, loved his work, loved gossip, loved to eat, loved a good time”. In 1986, Childs’ passion for ensuring Beard’s vibrant personality and love of sharing dishes served as the catalyst for the James Beard Foundation, which since its inception has awarded over $4.6 million to rising culinary students while championing American culinary visions Beard inspired.
In keeping with Beard’s loves of sharing dishes amongst friends and colleagues, and promoting rising stars in the culinary industry, the James Beard Foundation annually produces its Celebrity Chef Tour dinner series to 20 cities nationwide, affording locals opportunity to taste dishes prepared by Beard award-winning chefs and rising stars with a nod in taste to local culture.
On September 21st, Charleston played host as one of the tour’s stops, to resounding success. The tour’s four course meal selection was completed with perfect wine pairings, and included a cocktail reception with a beautiful dessert selection with coffee to complete the feast.
Held at the Lowndes Grove Plantation and hosted by Patrick Properties Hospitality Group’s (PPHG) banquet chef Peden Rucker and PPHG’s new executive chef of the Parcel 32 concept Digby Stridiron, 11 acclaimed chefs were present in the creation of dishes representing ingredients and ideas essential to Southern cuisine.
Connecting the occasion’s honoring of the past with celebration of Southern cuisine’s bold future was the inclusion of the most successful dish from Bertha’s Kitchen.
Awarded the honor of an America’s Classic Restaurant this year by the Beard foundation, all three of Albertha Grant’s daughters were present and honored to have their beloved lima beans as a staple for the main course.
After the completion of each course discussion was held on the components of each one with additional instruction on the wine pairing. To begin the evening’s meal, the first course was a Lowcountry Seafood Salad, prepared by Chefs Mike Lata and Jason Stanhope. Both past winners of the James Beard Foundation’s best chef award, Lata and Stanhope are well-known in the Lowcountry for the establishment FIG downtown. As their salad proved, the Food is Good title is well-earned. Paired with greens, shrimp, and a special vinaigrette sauce, the palate opening salad well-represented the boldness now found in Charleston’s seafood scene. The vibrant colors of the salad were well-paired with a gentle-tasting trimbach reserve pinot gris, hailing from a family business in alsace 17 generations strong.
Reinventing southern cuisine means more than creating a new sweet tea blend or rice recipe: it is finding what you love most of southern cuisine and incorporating that into your style. This sage advice was provided by chef Shuai Wang of Short Grain’s fame and a Beard finalist. The okra and butter beans dumplings provided by him well prove his point. It would be easy to assume that instead of a chinese inspired dish one were in fact eating a well-known southern family staple. The okra and beans work well with the dumpling style and flavor, and the addition of smoked soy and sorghum tare takes one’s taste buds to a world surrounded by spice and happiness. In fact this dish was so well received that our table sought additional portions to consume, knowing well that two more courses were on the way! Complementing the course was a sweet rose de printemps from the cotes de provence, aged 2013. The wine served as a mellowing force to the kick one receives from the dumplings, yet the soft sweetness in taste provided by the rose was a pleasant ease into course three.
Most discussed before the meal began was the main course provided by Chef Rucker and the cherished ladies from Bertha’s kitchen: Chicken fried duck confit. Chef Rucker provided the night's best example of unique twists to southern cuisine, as he explained that he prepared the duck similar to one preparing chicken, yet in a more tender process. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately Ched Rucker’s dish left I and my table speechless throughout most of the course, except to note that the process used over two days to create the duck confit was worth the time. It seemed as if the duck would fall from its place to one’s mouth in an instant. One could argue that in this case, the duck agreed that confit life was the best life for it, and allowed chef Rucker to prepare it with no questions asked. Vital to the meal’s completion was the lima beans provided by Bertha’s Kitchen. One taste is all needed to understand why it’s their best selling product. The combination of bean melted with remaining ingredients instantly takes you back in time, to where families connected and healed each other via soul food. There’s no denying the claim by Bertha’s owners that their lima beans can cure heartbreak. Of course one can’t forget wine, and luckily this dish was paired with the best offering: kung fu girl riesling aged 2015 from Washington state. The wine possesses a light, dry taste with powerful kick, resulting in a mesmerizing taste everyone at the table wanted at least one extra glass of.
For the final course, two Southern regions united: Southern United STates with Southern India courtesy of foundation-nominated chef Asha Gomez. As Gomez explained, beef indian dishes aren’t as well thought of as Chicken or lamb ones, yet in her southern region’s homeland Beef Biryani is vital to the region’s diet. Combined with rice and other items to taste including peppers, Gomez’s dish leaves one craving more just through the spicy taste. One finds the beef tender and appealing, garnished with sauce and paired well with modello rosso delle venezie IGT hailing from veneto. Gomez’s dish best exemplified the pairing of southern items with a true homage to one’s history and heritage by incorporating Gomez’s passions with her openness to American culture as an immigrant, a feat she attempts to recreate with every creation.
No meal is truly complete without dessert, and in this case it was a station offering sandwich cookies including lemon and double chocolate cookies. In addition pecan tassies and mini pineapple upside down cakes were presented for consumption. There’s no simple to critique them all, except to say no complaints were given.
Proceeds raised from the celebrity chef tour are given to the James Beard Foundation to continue its mission and work. Information on the tour and the foundation itself are found at https://www.jamesbeard.org/.