Whether you’ve been keen on his wry personality since the days of Grillin’ & Chillin” or you’re part of the posse that finds the red-haired, red chili-loving chef more irritating than enamoring, you have to admit that Bobby Flay has done extraordinary things for the culinary industry. As a chef, restaurateur, and TV personality, he’s earned himself a legendary status that will live on long after he puts down his spatula, and he’s opened up people’s eyes to the possibilities that can come from following your gut and passion, however unconventional.
That’s why, on July 26, the James Beard Foundation threw a mega-bash in Flay’s honor in Sagaponack, NY, deep in the heart of the Hamptons. Over 1,200 guests attended the event that featured dishes prepared by over 40 reputable chefs, along with hundreds of bottles of Champagne Taittinger, and a silent auction of cookbooks, booze, interesting ingredients, and experiential packages for food lovers that raised over $65,000 for the foundation to support education in culinary arts.
Sure, it was cool that Flay was receiving his due props from one of the world’s most prestigious culinary institutions on our planet, but honestly, I was more concerned with stuffing my face and seeing just how creative the invited chefs were able to get. And I was not disappointed. My stomach was so full by the time I drove back to the city that I could have passed for the first pregnant man in history.
Underneath an enormous white tent that was erected on a lush field on the grounds of Wölffer Estate Vineyards, the chefs and their teams manned serving stations along the perimeter and throughout the center space, doling out unique gourmet treats to flocks of hungry guests. Slices of hoagie stacked with smoked leg of Fossil Farms lamb and slathered with pickled ramp raita (a la Shane McBride of New York’s Balthazar and Schiller’s Liquor Bar) and shots of lettuce-cucumber gazpacho with poached langoustines, pink peppercorns, and cilantro (via Brian Loiacono of db Bistro Moderne) were just the beginning.
The event’s planners made sure that the menu was filled with as many proteins as possible, with everything from amberjack, salmon, scallops, shrimp and tuna, to quail, rabbit, oysters, short ribs and roast suckling pig making appearances. For vegetarians, there were also excellent examples of kitchen whimsy, like mushroom and goat cheese-stuffed zucchini blossoms with romesco sauce from John Mooney of Bell Book and Candle New York and Bidwell, and beet salad with blackberry vinegar and freeze-dried raspberries (from Jean Paul Lourdes of Restaurant Latour in Hamburg, NJ). Since I had to drive all the way back to the city afterward, I decided to skip the bubbly and unlimited Stella Artois, which enabled me to save room to taste literally everything at least once. After making the rounds and adding approximately 10 pounds to my lanky frame, I can confidently tell you this: there were hardly any weak links among the offerings.
Bobby’s Food Network buddy Alex Guarnaschelli contributed a classic crostini with freshly made ricotta and ripe heirloom tomatoes dressed up with ancho chile salt and Flying Pigs Farm bacon, which would have been more amazing under any other circumstances, but was overshadowed by almost everything else. PJ Calapa and Devin Bozkaya of Campagna at the Bedford Post Inn and New York City’s Costata prepared amberjack crudo with pickled cauliflower and Calabrian chilies, which had textural balance and just the right amount of heat to make your face perspire beneath your eyes (it was already sweltering outside anyway, so even the socialites were sweating). If the heat from that dish proved to be too intense, you could easily cool down your palate afterward with a few slurps of watermelon gazpacho with Peekytoe crab, coriander, and yuzu — as long as you made sure to ask chef Stephen Deveraux Greene (of Herons in Cary, NC) to hold the jalapeño.
There was also house-cured gravlax with Black River caviar and aquaponic greens from James Carpenter of Page at 63 Main in Sag Harbor, NY, and crudo with preserved lemon custard served on purple shiso leaves from Coby Farrow of BLT Prime. Even bacon popcorn made an appearance, providing a smoky-savory contrast to Pecko Zantilaveevan’s shrimp salad with citrus and lemon verbena-infused watermelon (that I hope is on the menu at The Four Seasons Restaurant in Manhattan). But nothing compared to the suckling pig. My stomach was so full by the time I drove back to the city that I could have passed for the first pregnant man in history.
Jason Hall, of The Fourth, was responsible for producing my favorite dish of the evening: crispy suckling pig presse with stone fruit mostarda and farofa (which is toasted manioc/yuca flour, if you weren’t sure). While he was being interviewed by a TV reporter from a local station, I ran off to a nearby table and devoured my pig piece like a caveman, since knives were not part of the equation and I was served a sizable hunk of meat. This particular pork was the perfect combination of crispy and caramelized on one side and fatty on the other, with the most tender, juicy meat snug in between. The farofa added some crunchy bits to the mix, and the sweet and sharp mostarda cut through the richness and countered the savory aspect of the roast with seasonal fruit flavor.
At some point, there were people congratulating Bobby Flay on stage and giving speeches, but by that point, I had just finished up eating seconds of my two favorite desserts: a parfait of apricot and Valrhona Caraibe chocolate with Rice Krispies and cocoa nib crunch from pastry chef George McKirdy of Astor Bake Shop in Queens, NY, and tarts made from Tristar strawberries and Valrhona Dulcey Blond chocolate with marshmallow and lemon verbena from Stephen Collucci of Colicchio & Sons in New York City. I’m sure some people were interested in the specifics of what was being said about Bobby, but from what I saw, it seemed as though even he couldn’t wait to get off the small, sponsor-adorned stage so he could get his grub on with everyone else.
An evening like this was the perfect excuse to drive hours from the city to one of the most easterly points on Long Island, and the experience was fun and delicious enough to make me want to go again next year. If you missed it and are craving some edible excitement from the James Beard Foundation, they’ve got plenty of events in their pipeline in the meantime, most notably Taste America: “Local Flavor From Coast to Coast,” starting next month in select U.S. cities.
From September 12 to October 25, a panel of chef all-stars and local celebrity chefs will be teaming up in 10 major cities to bring stellar eating experiences to American food lovers. Stops include Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Washington, D.C., LA, New York City, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Seattle, with each city’s event featuring a walk-around tasting reception catered by local chefs followed by a one-night-only four-course dinner prepared by a collaboration of chefs, including a JBF Taste America all-star and a local celebrity chef.
Check the James Beard Foundation website to learn about Taste America and more upcoming epicurean events, and stay tuned for next year’s Chefs & Champagne, which will undoubtedly be at least as delectable as this year’s.