Every 10-year-old boy weaned on baseball shares the same ultimate fantasy: to see the All-Star game and sit in the dugout with the all-star players from every team. Last Friday night was the ultimate adult food lover's fantasy: The James Beard Foundation Silver Anniversary Gala at (where else?) The Four Seasons Restaurant and hosted by Gotham Bar & Grill’s iconic, seemingly immortal chef Alfred Portale.
I have been a card carrying member of The James Beard Foundation for at least a decade, the equivalent of being a season ticket holder. If you’ve never been to Jim’s (I can call him that) House, lovingly preserved on West 12th Street, for cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, and dinner prepared by either an all-star chef or a rookie chef sensation in the impossibly tiny kitchen, you need to go. The Beard Foundation’s mission is the same as every self-respecting food lover: "to celebrate, preserve, and nurture America's culinary heritage and future.”
To quote Lou Gehrig, I felt like the luckiest man alive to be up close as I watched the paparazzi snap photos of Portale, Daniel Humm, Michel Richard, and Tom Colicchio. But I was there primarily as a journalist as my editor reminded me, dragging me back to reality. "Get some quotes!" he admonished.
First up, the jovial French-born Michel Richard. After drawing a caricature of himself on a commemorative set of chef’s whites to become part of the auction benefitting the Foundation, Michel warmed up to me and put his arm around my shoulder. I was determined to get a scoop for The Daily Meal. It was already widely known among the New York City food cognoscenti that Richard, founder of Citrus in LA (now closed, but at which I ate at in the '90s) and Citronelle in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown, which I’ve also enjoyed, was daring to do what many chefs even of his caliber were too afraid to…open a restaurant in the toughest food critic city in the world: New York City.
We know that he is indeed opening next year (maybe in May, he hinted) in the space in the Palace Hotel, which was most recently Gilt and before that Le Cirque 2000. I asked Richard what the concept was going to be. "It will be two separate places," he told me. It will house a formal dining room but also a more casual French bistro. And, Richard boasted, it will also be a French pastry shop. Richard was originally trained as a pastry chef/baker and even did a stint at The French Pastry Shop in Santa Fe, N.M., before opening his highly acclaimed restaurants in California. "I hope New York is kind to me," he said, referring to the recent Guy Fieri shredding by The New York Times' restaurant critic Pete Wells, enough to make any chef shudder. I would call that interview a solid base hit. "Enchanté!" Richard yelled out to me as I thanked him for the interview and moved on.
My next at bat was with Tom Colicchio, the Ryan Seacrest equivalent on the incredibly popular Top Chef. Overconfident from my Richard conversation, I just asked Colicchio to say something brilliant to The Daily Meal's readers. "Then ask me a brilliant question," he shot back. "How do you feel about Padma posing for next month’s Playboy magazine?" was the first thing that popped into my head. Evidently, food fantasies are not the only thing on my mind. I was met with cold, steely silence. Go figure! I still managed to get on base after I told him I was also a restaurant lawyer and we then engaged in a spirited discussion about the need for legal representation by restaurateurs in pressing their claims against deaf insurance companies after Hurricane Sandy.
Though not physically present, Pete Wells clearly had cast his shadow over the room. Thinking about Michel Richard’s reference to the savage Guy Fieri review and how tough all of the New York critics and dining public can be (just ask his friends Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon), I cornered Daniel Humm. Humm is clearly a chef at the very top of his game with Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad, but who was nevertheless subject to some recent Pete Wells negativity. I asked how he felt about Wells generally and the recent coverage of the changes to the Eleven Madison Park menu. He stared wide-eyed at me with what I can only describe as a terror-stricken look, mumbled "no comment," and ran the other way. Swing and a miss!
Alfred Portale had no such fears. Gotham is the only restaurant to have received five consecutive three-star reviews from The New York Times. He said the secret to his longevity and continued success is that he loves what he does and that he has resisted the urge to over-extend himself through expansion like so many celebrity chefs have been tempted to do. Despite that advice, he said that he was also enjoying overseeing Gotham Steak, which opened a few years ago at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami. Portale is also no stranger to The James Beard Foundation, having been highly awarded as Best Chef as far back as 1993 and as Outstanding Chef as recently as 2006. He fondly remembers James Beard visiting him with Julia Child in his early days as a chef. "I was literally up to my elbows making duck rillettes" when "Jim and Julia" walked in on him. Not dissuaded, the two were like kids watching their mom bake a cake as they both proceeded "to lick the bowl."
Portale organized the dinner and ask his celebrity co-chefs to prepare dishes which reflected Beard’s spirit of food and friendship. Unfortunately, I could not stay for the dinner, but if the appetizers were any indication, dinner was going to be a homerun. I managed to sample everything: quince and foie gras macarons, lamb tartare with black truffles, grilled octopus skewers, fried oysters with chipolata sausage (a favorite of Beards), parsnip soup with truffle foam, veal-stuffed arancini, Nantucket Bay scallops, bacon and veal wontons, and cheeseburger balls.
Happy Silver Anniversary to the James Beard Foundation and I hope to attend the Golden Anniversary after the next 25 years.