Robert Del Grande of Houston's RDG and Bar Annie brought his guitar to Nashville. Norman Van Aken of Norman's in Orlando brought his knife case and his harmonica case. The two were among five James Beard Award-winning chefs — the others being "new American" pioneer Larry Forgione, Boston powerhouse Lydia Shire, and Washington, D.C. luminary Robert Kinkead — who'd come to the country music capital on June 4th for the first-ever Savor Nashville, an evening of upscale food and down-home music, under the aegis of Nashville Lifestyles magazine, appended to the Nissan Taste of Music City festival that filled several downtown streets. (A second part of the event was a shrimp-and-grits contest the following morning, with the efforts of local chefs judged by the celebrity guests.) The Daily Meal was a media sponsor.
“It’s always great to pull into a famous music town like Nashville carrying a guitar thinking that someone might mistake you for a big star," Del Grande said after the event, "but as usual, no one did. No autographs. Of course, I was also carrying a small Igloo holding the mole sauce for the dinner — which I believe I did give an autograph for." Van Aken should have brought an Igloo, too. "My Brazilian shrimp chowder didn't arrive via UPS from Orlando," he reported. "It probably showed up a couple of days later. Anyway, I had to cook for 275 diners from scratch at the last minute." With the help of some extra seafood Kinkead has brought and many cans of coconut milk scored from a local Indian grocery store, he got the chowder — which he usually makes with conch — out on time and to much acclaim.
Shire had started things off with one of her typically, deliciously over-the-top combo plates: a slab of pork belly half-wrapped in what she called a "bap" (a British term for a soft roll) but was more like a bao, alongside a popover drizzled with a sauce of Lyle's Golden Syrup and (a nod to the locality) Jack Daniel's, with a piece of lobster nestled in it — and a little square glass of minted pea soup just for variety. "They told me they wanted me to make hors d'oeuvres," Shire explained, "so I thought these would all be passed separately. They weren't supposed to all be on the same plate." Nobody seemed to mind.
The rest of the dinner, all of it convincingly representative of the chefs who made it (which is not always the case at these traveling-toque affairs): Kinkead's halibut crusted in mustard and brioche crumbs with porcini broth, favas, and wild mushroom agnolotti; Del Grande's roasted New York steak with beef rib mole and hominy; and Forgione's dessert assortment of flourless chocolate macadamia torte, candied citrus charoltte russe, and strawberry-rhubarb shortcake from a recipe given to Forgione personally by his later mentor, James Beard himself. The imported chefs were assisted by local ones: Jeremy Barlow (Tayst), Megan Wlliams (Capitol Grille), Matt Bolus (Watermark), Brian Uhl (Sunset Grill), and Matt Simonds (the Downtown Hilton — where the event was held). Jim Concannon of Concannon Vineyard was there with a selection of wines, which he described before each course, to an audience that grew increasingly raucous and inattentive as the evening progressed but was undeniably having a great time.
Another well-known chef involved with the evening, but not as a cook, was Louis Osteen, formerly of Charleston and now running the kitchens at Nashville's Watermark and Fish & Co. He and his wife, Marlene, were honorary chairs of the event and functioned as chef wranglers, bringing the group together. The official word: "We were just elated to have not only the participation of so many accomplished chefs," said Stacie Standifer, editor and publisher of Nashville Lifestyles, "but so much enthusiasm from the local community as well."
Because this was Music City, after all, there was music involved, too: Standifer's fiancé, country songwriter Tim Nichols (Tim McGraw's "Live Like You Were Dying", etc.) and his musical partner, Craig Wiseman, sat on stools on stage with their guitars and performed six or eight songs between courses. Then Del Grande, Van Aken, and the guy who had been brought in to introduce the chefs before their creations were served — er, me — did a mercifully short set of their own, a medley of "V-8 Ford Blues" in more or less the Mose Allison version and Fats Domino's "I'm Gonna Be a Wheel Someday".
Del Grande: "We only solidified the arrangement, at the sound check right before the event started — 'It’s Nashville, and you’re still working it out during the sound check?' — so it was probably a minor miracle that it went off as well as it did. But good cooking and playing a little music in Nashville — that’s a story I can tell for a while.”
"Yeah," added Van Aken, "we didn't need UPS to bring that home."