Sunday, December 17, 2006

Our James Beard Experience

When my sister Traci asked if we were ready to do a dinner at the Beard house in New York, I answered, “sure, why not!?”. I had no way of knowing the amount of work my response would entail for us over the next 5 months.

The first thing to consider was the date. I wanted to make sure that we go a time of year when we could really showcase the beautiful variety of produce, cheeses and meats our farmers bring to market and to our restaurant. For me, what makes L'Etoile what it is, is the way we take what the seasons and the farmers give to us and turn it into simple, honest, delicious dishes. This is why I felt, in order to give them a real taste of our style food, we had to bring as many local Wisconsin ingredients as possible.

Mid summer, Traci comes to me in the kitchen and says that the Beard house wants to know if we would come cook Thanksgiving for them. Sweet! I love Thanksgiving and I can only imagine that Mr. Beard loved Thanksgiving too. So, we were officially in. Our next step was to consider which staff members to take and find out whether they would be willing to give up their holiday with their families. Bringing our entire kitchen staff was a no-brainer but we also felt it important to represent the many other positions, or rather, people, that make L’Etoile special; our long time servers, the office managers, our maître'd, and even the bartender. Luckily for us, they were all excited and willing!

I asked Katy, our head baker and cafe manager, if she thought she could replicate our delicious bread in New York. I knew she would say yes, even if she didn't quite know how. That's just Katy. With Katy on-board, our team was complete!

Next up for me was writing the menu. I love the traditional turkey dinner and all the fixins. I didn't want to miss out on eating stuffing, sweet potatoes, gravy, apple pie & ice cream! So I considered, like so often is the case with any of my menus, what I would want to eat. However, instead of a family-style thanksgiving meal, I broke the dinner up into 5 courses.

Then, I needed to think ingredients. I went about it just like I do at L'Etoile. I thought about the ingredients that would be available in November and who we could get them from. Matt's turkeys, Ela Orchard’s apples, Blue Moon’s red cabbage, Harmony Valley's everything... and so on.

Once the menu was done, the Beard house called me again and asked if I was willing to stay a couple extra days and teach a class, like we do in Cafe Soleil. I agreed and added the class with the controversial name, " a Quintessential Brunch” on my list of things to prepare for. I call it controversial because I thought it should be called “a Holiday Brunch”. I imagined many New Yorkers, like Americans everywhere, would have lots of visitors during the holidays and might like to get some brunch ideas. I guess the Beard house thought that since there was nothing like a Bûche de noël or eggnog on the menu, it had to be called something else. Truth be told, I didn't really care what they called it! Though, I did find it funny how it all played out in their minds.

In considering the Beard dinner, I decided that since so many of our staff were coming and since I of course, didn’t want to miss out on a delicious Thanksgiving dinner, we should have a staff meal just like we do everyday at L’Etoile. Except this time, we would also invite all of the Beard house staff to eat with us. Apparently, this never happens, which was made evident by the staff's excitement and gratitude. Some warned me that having to do 2 turkey dinners in one night was a bit much, but I didn't care. Thanksgiving is for everyone.

When the Monday before Thanksgiving came, we packed the huge load of food and wine in to the cargo van that our hardcore, bookeeper Tracey, would drive all the way to the big city. The rest of us jumped on a plane in time to meet up with her when she arrived in front of the Beard house, late Tuesday night. Eva, our pastry chef, Katy and I started prepping the following morning at 7:30am. Wednesday afternoon, the rest of the crew arrived. I have to say our day of prepping, the eve of Thanksgiving, went along pretty smoothly, other than a few minor glitches in the bread making process. (Which a determined Katy easily overcame.)

It was amazing to see our crew all come together. I felt like we had worked so hard to get there and that no one was going to let anything go wrong. We were feeling loose, listening to some New York hip hop on the radio (Hot 97!) as we prepped. It was a good time, all of us cooking together in the highly reputed Beard house kitchen. Even my fiancé, Lili, joined in to help clean and cut the moutain of brussel sprouts.

After our day’s work was done, we had dinner at DB Bistro Modern, where one of my former line cooks, Huy Duong, works. He set us up nicely, providing additional dishes to taste with every course. They had this unbelievable (32$) burger stuffed with foie gras and truffles and served on a toasted parmesan bun. So delicious! Another favorite was the stuffed pig’s foot and lentil appetizer. I was so happy to see Huy doing well. At L’Etoile, his talent shone as he worked his way through every station of the kitchen. He has what we call “finesse”; multi-tasking and moving fast, while keeping plates clean and neatly put together. I know that Huy will be a great chef some day.

Thanksgiving morning came early. Our day began at 7:30 am. One of the things that made our dinner stand out was that we had brought all our own ingredients and that we were preparing everything there. This meant that we would need the time to make, start to finish, all the bread, the puff pastry, as well as the crackers and mini- baguettes used for the canapés. Eva also had to churn the cinnamon ice cream that would be served with the apple tart tatin! With everything being made from scratch, it was a big day.

I started out by making a list, just like we do at work. I wrote every aspect of the menu and who would be doing what. I also wrote out who was in charge of the different dishes for family meal. Then, we went to work. It was fairly quiet and calm through the morning hours. Yet, the emotions were starting to creep in. I wasn't worried about the food or the service. I was so confident in the ingredients that I spent most of the day, dreaming about James Beard and his love for food, for cooking and of course, for eating. I thought about how cool it was that this eccentric man was able to leave such a legacy behind by creating a space for chefs, both young and old, to showcase their talents and their personal cooking styles.

I began to feel so very proud to be there, representing such a great group of farmers and sharing the end result of their great efforts with the people of New York. I must admit, at first, all I wanted to show New York and the Beard house was that in Wisconsin, we have such great things happening with our amazing local artisans and producers and co-producers. But, as the day progressed, while listening and watching our fantastic crew work with such pride and finesse, I began to think a little differently. I decided that what I really wanted to show our guests was that great food can be found locally, even in N.Y., and how they too can forge relationships with hardworking people to provide them with all the food they could want or need. I also wanted to challenge our dinner guests, that night, to ask their local restaurants to do the same.

We finally got to family meal; turkey, sausage stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, red cabbage, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, corn pudding and even the green bean casserole (the last of which had to first be explained to some non-natives and secondly why we love it on thanksgiving!). Eva made us an extra apple tart for dessert. Yum! It was so much fun. Plates overflowing with food, we sat together for our menu meeting. I first talked through all the dishes, who we bought the ingredients from and how we prepared them. Then, Michael Kwas, our wine director, took over and explained the wines and the local Madison beer, that would be served with the different courses.

Afterwards, the crew and I were off to change into fresh white coats before the guests arrived. While most of the kitchen crew worked on the canapés, I began cooking in the back. At the James Beard house, guests arrive through the kitchen and say hi to the chefs on their way to the reception area. There is just nothing like the smell of Thanksgiving coming from the kitchen. You could see everyone’s faces light up as they passed through. Some of our diners were a little freaked out by the fact that my turkeys still weren’t in the oven! I just laughed it off knowing that since the birds were broken down into sections, they were easier to handle and faster to cook.

The dinner went by so smoothly that before we knew it, we were half way through, thinking "yes, we're doing it!". And, the second half of the meal was as seamless as the first. After dessert was served, I was introduced to the crowd. As I was passed the microphone, my emotions were hard to keep in check. It was so hard to put in to words the gratitude I felt for our crew and for my sister, and for Lili being there and helping me get through this moment in my journey as a chef. I really felt like our team could not have done any better that night. Thinking back on our performance together, it feels like a dream.

From the bottom of my heart, I will be eternally thankful for their support that night. I wanted to make James Beard, our farmers, my crew and my family proud. But mostly, I hope that we showed our diners how amazing food can be when you choose great ingredients, real food, delicious and local. And also, to remind folks to praise an ingredient not only for what it is but where it came from and who grew it.

Wishing you all loads of good eating this New Year!-Tory


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wish I could have been there!!!

9:41 PM  
Blogger Mei said...

Tory--it sounds incredible!
Miss you,

7:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


10:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


10:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your cooking story at the Beard. I am more 'mindful' (borrowed this word from Jane Goodall's book 'Harvest For Hope') in my eating now, appreciate the people who grow/cook the food with their heart and soul and be kind to mother earth.
I also enjoy reading about your Terra Madre experience. Hope to go the Salone del Gusto someday :-)
Best regards.

4:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


7:04 PM  

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