On May 18th, Charleen Badman, chef and co-owner of FnB restaurant in Scottsdale, AZ, cooked a five-course dinner for a sold-out crowd at the James Beard House in New York City.
I was there, but not as a diner. Or a writer. I was a prep cook. This is how it went down.
Ask any chef who’s cooked at the James Beard House, hosting a dinner is an honor — and an invitation-only experience. Chefs aspire to it. Dream about it. The James Beard Foundation invites notable chefs to cook — predominately at their expense – as a means of fundraising. Charleen has cooked at the House at least a dozen times, most often as a trusted aid to another featured chef and once as the featured chef during her stint at Inside, a New York City restaurant she co-owned with Anne Rozenzweig.
Last November, Izabela Wojcik, Director of House Program for the Beard Foundation, officially extended an invitation to Charleen to cook at the House after dining at FnB. Charleen and co-owner Pavle Milic — without blinking — decided to break open the piggy bank and go for it.
Importing a chunk of Arizona to New York City would be challenging and take months of careful planning. Even with the best-made plans, potential snags loomed around every turn. Charleen & Pavle were determined to not only bring Arizona ingredients – Navajo-Churro lamb, Two Wash Ranch chicken, McClendon’s Select Gilfeather rutabagas, Maya Farms I’itoi onions — but also a curated selection Arizona wines.
The first hurdle was submitting a menu to The House in February for the mid-May dinner. In January, Charleen contacted her regular rotation of farmers and producers, asking what would they be able to supply her come May. This was trickier than it sounds. Thanks to a moody Mother Nature, the Gilfeathers would still be available (unusual) and eggplant would not (also unusual).
With a list of ingredients, Charleen consulted past menus, cherry-picking guest favorites and filling in the gaps with new dishes swirling in her head. Next came testing the dishes, then more testing, and once more. Each dish was made multiple times to work out kinks and solidify timing. The final menu looked like this:
Spring Beet Falafel with Dill & Sina’s Special Sauce
Red Carrot Tartare with Golden Beet Chips & Duck Egg Gribiche
Dates with Goat Cheese & Verde Valley Pecans
Two Wash Ranch Chicken Wings with Chiltepin Chiles & I’itoi Onion Quark
Los Milics Ita’s Rose 2014
Aleppo Pepper-Cured Salmon with Petals, Pods & Crispy Red Fife
Hayden Flour Mills Crackers
Bodega Pierce Malvasia Bianca 2014
Heirloom Tomatoes with Polenta, Marjoram, & Florence Monk Oil & Vinegar
Caduceus Cellars Dos Ladrones 2013
Gilfeather Rutabaga with Ginger Labne, Tesa & Chive Blossoms
Callaghan Vineyards Grenache 2013
Navajo-Churro Lamb Loin with Manti, Yogurt, Sprouted Coriander & Urfa Butter
Dos Cabezas Wineworks El Campo 2012
Rio Red Grapefruit Cake with Pistachio Green Tea Ice Cream & Candied Citrus
FnB extends special thanks to the following for their generous support: Arizona Microgreens, Crow’s Dairy, Hayden Flour Mills, Maya’s Farm, McClendon’s Select, Singh Farms, Two Wash Ranch, Agritopia & Welcome Chicken & Donuts
& Winemakers Kelly & Todd Bostock, Michael Pierce, Kent Callaghan, Pavle Milic & Maynard Keenan
Charleen instructed her staff to save chicken wings from the weekly poultry delivery by Two Wash Ranch. She placed an order for green tea ice cream she had tasted while visiting New York City in January to assist at the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs dinner at The Beard House, planning to pick it up the day of the event. Winemakers were given the menu and collaborated with Pavle on what wines to pair with each course.
Assembling a kitchen team to assist her the day of the event fell into place next. Of course Anne (former boss and long-time mentor) would come. Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery giddily raised her hand. I told Charleen I’d buy a ticket to the dinner. I’ve never eaten at the Beard House. I couldn’t think of a better introduction. Charleen had another idea. She asked if I’d like to work in the kitchen. I nearly fainted. It’s been 18 years since I worked in a professional kitchen. But HELL YES I wanted work!
Stacey McDevitt, a New York-based pastry chef and co-owner of a trail-blazing former Scottsdale restaurant called Hapa, volunteered to assist with dessert. When James, her husband, (a Food & Wine Best New Chef and a James Beard Rising Star finalist) cooked at The House several years ago, Charleen was there to assist them. It was Stacey’s chance to repay the favor.
And then there was the ringer – Sacha Levine, who has cooked with Charleen off and on (currently still on) over many years.
Two weeks before the event, Charleen contacted each farmer and producer to make sure product was ready. Through testing, she discovered the purple barley for the salmon garnish didn’t crisp as she’d hoped, so Red Fife wheat berries stood in. The ice cream company [I won’t name this Lower East Side joint] dropped the ball and would not be able to provide the green tea ice cream. The biggest sucker punch came at the same time, courtesy of the New York Legislature, who had recently passed a law that impacted the wine delivery. Donated wines could no longer be shipped directly to The House. Now they must go through a distributor.
There was only one problem. None of the winemakers distribute in New York except Maynard, and his New York distributor didn’t carry the wine he was donating. Some fancy footwork by Todd and Kelly Bostock turned what could have been a dinner without any Arizona wine into all systems go. They found a sympathetic distributor, but the financial fallout was in the hundreds of dollars. It could have been worse. It could have been in the thousands.
A week before the event, Charleen mailed six Priority Mail boxes stuffed with more Arizona foodstuffs to Anne, who reported only one casualty – a broken bottle of vinegar.
Two days before the dinner, Charleen and Pavle worked a portion of Saturday evening service at their restaurant, and packed up a cooler, several boxes and suitcases filled with foodstuff. Before they hopped in the car to head to the airport to catch a red-eye flight to New York, Charleen tossed an extra, empty cooler into the car. The ticket agent informed the duo that the one big cooler weighed a whopping 132 pounds. No go. A red plastic suitcase filled with food clocked in at 99 pounds – just under the 100-pound limit. Pavle dashed back to the car to retrieve the extra cooler while Charleen, surrounded by a curious group of bystanders, began the shell game of moving stuff from one container to another. Eventually the weight gods were satisfied, and, not surprising, by the time the cargo landed in New York, the duct tape had been replaced by TSA tape.
Chefs are not allowed access to the Beard House kitchen until 8 a.m. the day of their event. That meant Charleen had to find a place to store her hundreds of pounds of Arizona proteins, vegetables, cheeses and pantry goods. A Beard House caterer partner kindly took in the goods on Sunday morning, and delivered them to the House Monday morning.
Ten Hours to Showtime
I caught up with Charleen, Sacha and Pavle at the Union Square farmers market at 9 a.m. on the day of the dinner. Charleen had already met the caterer at The House at 7:45 a.m., to put away the product.
At the market, Charleen & Sacha were picking up last minute greens and ogling what New York farmers were harvesting. We walked to The House where Lori had already arrived minutes earlier. Anne wasn’t far behind. Stacey wouldn’t come until noon. The House provided two students to help prep – both pulled their weight, especially Tom, who knew the drill like the back of his hand. The kitchen is small, but not quite as small as FnB’s kitchen. It sort of looks like a restaurant kitchen – hoods and stoves and a proper dishwashing station – if you decided to gut your home kitchen and stuff it with commercial appliances and stainless steel shelves. I wondered what it looked like in the 1960s when Mr. Beard was cooking and entertaining his friends, Jacques Pépin, Craig Claiborne and Julia Child.
Once we were all gathered in the square kitchen, Charleen divvied up tasks. Lori sliced the cured salmon. I mixed filling for the lamb manti. Sacha roasted carrots and rutabagas. Charleen sent Pavle to fetch the ice cream from a new purveyor – in Brooklyn.
I wish I could say I remember the rest of the day with clarity, but I don’t. I kept my head down, stuffing wontons with spiced ground lamb, sealing the edges and folding them neatly into a package shape not too dissimilar from tortelloni.
I made 188 lamb wontons, plus 8 vegetarian ones for special guests, Karen Page & Andrew Dornenburg, authors of “The Flavor Bible” and “The Vegetarian Flavor Bible,” among a host of other award-winning books. I cut, along with Josephine, a culinary school intern, two large boxes of Arizona-grown heirloom tomatoes. I sorted micro greens, and made I’itoi onion quark for the chicken wing appetizer.
I remember catching a glimpse of Lori intently slicing salmon with her sashimi knife with Japanese precision.
Later she moved on to slicing the tesa Charleen had cured back in Arizona on a commercial slicer.
Then Lori put on a red cape and morphed into “Fry Girl,” manning the persnickety deep fryer for hours. She sliced golden beets on a mandoline and fried them for the carrot tartare appetizer. Then she fried a couple hundred falafel. Then she fried a couple hundred chicken wings and several hundred polenta croutons.
She caught a fry break when Charleen took over to fry her carrot cake fritters, a recipe and technique she perfected by spending no small amount of early morning hours with Casey Hopkins-Johnson of Welcome Chicken & Donuts. Pavle was wrangled into kitchen duty and hand-dipped each fritter into the coconut milk icing Casey had sent along.
Stacey arrived just before noon and dove straight into making 80+ mini grapefruit cakes. She had brought dozens of cookies she’d made that were served after the cake and ice cream course. Suddenly a single dessert course — cake and ice cream — had morphed into three desserts – four if you count the “Chunky” candies Anne made first thing in the morning, after a who’s-on-first debacle with a missing seven pounds of chocolate, except we all forgot about the trapezoidal-shaped candies languishing in the freezer.
It was early in the day, perhaps soon after we arrived at the house, when Charleen started a big batch of butterscotch pudding. It wasn’t on the menu. It had been specifically requested by a couple of regular FnB guests who were coming to the dinner. The other guests should have thanked them.
Charleen had also made a batch of yeast dough for the carrot cake fritters to rise while quarterbacking everyone else in those first few hours, tracking down missing chocolate, and directing Pavle to the “right” ice cream shop. She batted away the day kitchen manager, who kept gently badgering her to come pick out plates for each course. I could tell by the look on her face she wished she’d done it the first time he asked, and not the fourth, when her stove-top pudding and rising fritter dough were unfortunately, simultaneously at the point of no return and needed her attention.
Sacha, meanwhile, seemed to have her hands on everything. In addition to roasting carrots and rutabagas, she seared the lamb, browned the manti, and once the rutabagas were almost tender, she smashed and seared those, too. I’m certain she handled a dozen other tasks that slipped my notice.
Make it Rain
Miraculously – to me, anyway – everything came together and there was an eerie if short lull just before guests began arriving. We took a quick break to see the dining room set in all its finery and gawked over the wall-to-wall mirrored bathroom and atrium shower stall. Mr. Beard, a large man, apparently didn’t mind admiring himself – or mind if others did as well.
Tom, one of the interns, told me Daniel Boulud was responsible for the video cameras in the kitchen. The House allows for live streaming during dinner service. I saw a tiny red light on one. I freaked. Charleen had told me she requested the cameras turned off. I didn’t want to be on camera. Neither did she. None of us did. Tom said most male chefs want the cameras on. I pulled up the website on my phone. The cameras were off.
Hordes of guests paraded through the kitchen – the official route to the backyard where hors d’oeuvre are passed.
A professional photographer snapped pictures, as did several guests. The next four hours were a blur of plates and assembly line production.
The Captain barked orders at his servers. He kept us hopping, too.
“Five minutes until the next course drops, Chef,” he said, as we were sending out the last few plates of the previous course. Our intern told him we had another 10 minutes at one point. I think he wanted to go home on time and had seen this movie one too many times. We did not hold him up.
It was chaotic and noisy and thrilling. Had four hours really passed? It seemed like four minutes.
And then, the last dessert plate left the kitchen. I felt something. My back, my shins and my feet were all screaming at me. I looked at Charleen. She seemed perfectly normal. And then I looked at Lori and Sacha and Anne and Stacey. They all seemed cool as cucumbers. I felt like amateur. Pavle and Todd brought wine down to share.
Before we’d had a sip, Charleen was summoned upstairs to greet the stuffed, happy guests. She insisted we all file in. She gave a short speech — lots of clapping, lots of camera flashes. She thanked her team. We beamed. We marched back downstairs and began packing up. Guests streamed out, stopping to gush over Charleen.
And then they were gone. And so were we.
*Update — On June 17th, Charleen will recreate the entire James Beard dinner menu at FnB. The cost, including wine pairings, is $95++ and begins at 6:30 p.m. To make reservations, call 480-284-4777.