The James Beard Foundation blew into town on Thursday evening as part of its Celebrity Chef Tour series, which brings the foundation’s famous Beard House dinners in New York City to more than 20 cities across the country each year.
Thursday’s dinner, hosted by chef Jon Buchanan at Third Coast Restaurant in The Medical Center, was a five-course extravaganza that featured the talents of Buchanan, James Beard best chef winner and visiting chef Michael Mina of the new International Smoke in CityCentre; local chef and James Beard winner Hugo Ortega; chef Kevin Gillespie of Gunshow in Atlanta; and chefs Mike McKinney and Jonathan Insetta of Orsay in Jackonsville, Florida.
As with all Celebrity Chef Tour events, the evening kicked off with a cocktail hour and passed hors d’oeuvres created by each of the celebrity chefs. Attendees were greeted at the door with a choice of two cocktails created by Third Coast’s sommelier, David Cook, one of which was a play on a Paloma cocktail made with Tito’s Vodka, grapefruit juice and house-made thyme syrup.
Hors d’oeuvres included a foie gras mousse with Mission fig on multigrain toast by Buchanan; a creamy Thai red curry Gulf shrimp soup shooter by Mina and International Smoke director of culinary ops Jeremy McMillan; smoked salmon and everything bagel rangoons by Gillespie; crispy masa bowls filled with lobster and dusted with chicatana by Ortega; and rabbit hot dogs and chicken fried sweetbread biscuit sliders by McKinney.
And that was just the beginning. After introductory comments by Buchanan and the James Beard Director of Special Events, Yvon Ros, guests were treated to a sumptuous five-course meal that served to showcase each chef's cuisine.
Buchanan’s first course of frisee, roasted beats, truffled beet puree and grana panna cotta, was a fitting start to the evening, highlighting his restaurant’s commitment to local sourcing and the bounty of the third coast. Paired with a 2016 Evening Land Gamay Noir from Eola-Amity Hills Oregon, it set the stage for each of the remaining star-caliber dishes.
A beautifully plated sea scallop crudo by McKinney and Insetta arrived next, accompanied by a flurry of activity as my table companions all reached for their phones and cameras. Served in a thick bed of bright yellow, turmeric-flavored buttermilk sauce, the silky smoothness of each bite was punctuated by small little bursts of umami thanks to the addition of trout roe.
The sophisticated dish also sparked some conversation about Jacksonville’s flourishing food scene and how a foodie pilgrimage there might be in order. Cook chose a 2016 Gallica Albraino from Rorick Heritage Vineyard in Calaveras, California for this pairing, its mild flavor and bright acidity a very good match against the mustard-like muskiness of the sauce.
Southern food and Southern techniques were at the forefront of Gillespie’s smoked, apple cider-laquered pork loin. Served on a bed of creamed collards, with a crispy boudin fritter and pickled crab apples, what was remarkable about this dish was the strong sense of place it evoked — effectively transporting you to his restaurant in Georgia. In keeping with the Southern theme, Cook paired it with the only Texan wine of the night, a 2017 Southold Farm + Cellar ‘Don’t Forget to Soard ‘ Roussand Blend from the Texas High Plains.
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For the meat course, chefs Mina and McMillan made a Korean galbi-style 44 Farms short rib. Enrobed in a glossy deep brown glaze, and served with a scoop of sticky rice and kim chi, the rib was rich and hearty and a delicious introduction to one of International Smoke's signature dishes. The pairing, a full-bodied 2013 Rudd Oakville Estate Samantha’s Cabernet Sauvignon from Oakville, Napa Valley, California, was also my favorite of the night.
Before the last course, a large chocolate orb, was served, everyone in the room received a small wooden hammer. Pastry chef Ruben Ortega, representing Caracol Restaurant, explained to everyone that he’d created it because his sister-in-law, restauranteur Tracy Vaught, loves coconut, and then instructed everyone to use the hammer to break the chocolate orb. All around the room, hammers pounded. Ours cracked open in an artful Jackson Pollack-like splatter, with crispy-crunchy textures strong coconut essence. We washed it all down with a 2014 Watermill Late Harvest Gewurstraminer from Walla Walla Valley, Washington.
The Chef's Celebrity Tour comes around approximately once each year. This year's dinner in Houston raised $7,500, with proceeds benefitting the James Beard Foundation, in support of its programs and scholarships. More information about the James Beard Foundation Culinary Tours and upcoming events can be found at: www.jamesbeard.org.