Country Cooking For CMT's Artists Of The Year

As you may have heard, three James Beard award-winning chefs met last week in Franklin, Tennessee to prepare a gala dinner for CMT's Artists of the Year awards. The three-course tasting menu was put together by Chefs R.J. Cooper (of Rogue 24, scheduled to open in Washington, D.C., spring 2011), John Currence of City Grocery (Oxford, Mississippi), and Michael Schwartz of Michael's Genuine Food & Drink (Miami).

To get a feel for the chefs, and what goes into pulling off a gala dinner, we asked each of them about the challenges involved as well as what dish most represents Country to them.

What goes into preparing dishes for celebrities?
Cooper: Preparing for this event we had to use our talents as they do to make the experience memorable and enjoyable. Creating dishes that meet the demands of 250 different palates and backgrounds was the true test.
Currence: Almost like preparing food for the non-superstars we cook for every, wait it is exactly like that actually.
Schwartz: It's really fun, especially after finding out that many of these guys really appreciate good food. We were able to have Zac Brown visit in our prep kitchen. Let's just say, we chefs weren't the only ones sharing food knowledge. He even has his own mobile rig he takes on tour dispensing truly home-style dishes to artists and fans. The Maroon 5 guys liked the smoked brisket I did and said they'd check out the restaurant when they're in Miami.

What are the challenges?
Cooper: The challenges are of working outside your environment and without your daily staff. You have to have an instant trust to insure success.
Currence: Cooking for a large group outside of your comfort zone is never easy. Assembling a dish for 300 guests that reflects what we do in our kitchens every night, one plate at a time is equally challenging. So we adapt to the surroundings we are set in and do the best we can to eliminate the greatest margin of error by designing dishes which will lend themselves to a completely different type of service.
Schwartz: Well, expectations are always high no matter who the customer is, but it's a little different than what we're used to at the restaurant in a setting like this where you're preparing food for hundreds of people at once from an unfamiliar kitchen. But once you learn the lay of the land, it's just another day at the office. Plus it doesn't hurt having other chefs like John and R.J. who have your back.

What are the dynamics involved in preparing and serving at an event like this?
Cooper: A tremendous amount of organization on our part about the product we needed to plate, what we wanted to use, and how we wanted our food to be served. Then making sure we timed ourselves to make sure the tasks were done. We had great people making this happen.
Currence: Typically in a situation like the CMT event, there is a third party caterer brought in to organize and produce the food with the visiting chefs. Making sure everyone is on the same page and communicating effectively is priority number one in that situation. As a chef from out of town, you are working with a crew for one night. And getting a staff you are unfamiliar with to buy into what it is you are trying to do is a big challenge. Other than that, the real key is in designing a dish that is as easy to produce en masse as possible, while staying true to what your food is really about.
Schwartz: There's a lot of work that happens days in advance. After the menu is decided on, I like to source the main ingredients local to where the event is taking place, like I did with this grass-fed beef brisket. Sometimes other components are prepped in the restaurant and travel with me, but this time I relied on the catering company we worked with to procure everything. It's important to have detailed prep lists so you can locate all your stuff upon arrival. Then it's just a matter of cooking it all. Organization is key.

What dish to you most represents Country?
Cooper: All the dishes had a Southern or Country flare to them.
Currence: Chicken 'n dumplings, turnip greens, cornbread, and cold beer.
Schwartz: What could be more Country than beef brisket smoked in Maker's Mark bourbon barrel bungs. That's Country on Country for you!

What's your favorite Country song?
Cooper: I like new-school Country like Zac Brown Band and old-school Johnny Cash. I like "Free" by Zac Brown.
Currence: "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and "Cocaine Blues."
Schwartz: To be honest, Country isn't something that I normally listen to, but I was really impressed with everything I heard at the show. Jason Aldean and Zac Brown Band especially. My daughters love all things Taylor Swift.

Chefs Schwartz, Cooper, and Currence. Courtesy Jackie Sayet.