Road to the Beard House

By / Photography By Russell Cothren | September 01, 2013
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steak dinners

The honor of a chef being invited to cook at the James Beard House could be compared to a musician being asked to perform at Carnegie Hall. “It’s an honor to be invited, truly a special benchmark for anyone in our industry,” says Case Dighero, Culinary Director at Eleven at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Dighero is not alone in feeling this honor. Three other Bentonville chefs have the distinguished honor of demonstrating their culinary skills at the James Beard House in New York this November. Chef Rob Nelson from Tusk & Trotter, Chef Matt McClure of the Hive at 21c Museum Hotel, and Master Pastry Chef Tammy Varney from Meridienne Dessert Salon will collaborate to prepare a meal for friends and guests at the historic Beard House in Greenwich Village. “Going to cook at the Beard House is the biggest honor so far in my cooking career. It will be a night I will remember for the rest of my life!” says Nelson.

James Beard was a cookbook author and teacher who helped educate and mentor generations of professional chefs and food enthusiasts. “As an American culinary pioneer, Beard defined and then cultivated the nation’s foodie culture. His message of good food honestly prepared with fresh ingredients is the foundation of our growing farm to fork culture in downtown Bentonville,” says Daniel Hintz, Executive Director of Downtown Bentonville, Inc.

The James Beard Foundation was established in 1986, a year after Beard’s death when, according to the James Beard website, Peter Kump was instructed by Julia Child to do something with Beard’s house. Kump led the campaign to raise the down payment to buy Beard’s home from his estate. The Foundation then officially opened the James Beard House “to provide a center for the culinary arts and to continue to foster the interest James Beard inspired in all aspects of food, its preparation, presentation, and of course, enjoyment.”

“The James Beard Foundation is the manifestation of Beard’s vision to educate, inspire and foster an understanding of who we are as a nation through our culinary heritage. Our partnership with this storied institution has been a catalyst for the nascent Bentonville culinary scene as we explore our local food ways through economic, entertainment, culture and nourishment lenses,” explains Hintz. Beard foundation representatives, at Hintz’s invitation, visited the Bentonville culinary scene. He then had the pleasure of notifying the chefs directly of their invitation to the Beard House.

Hintz says the chefs were chosen because of their commitment to using local product, their incredible talent, their dedication to developing an edible culture in Bentonville, and their leadership in the culinary community. Furthermore, the selected chefs are expected to collaborate for the presentation. Dighero says the teamwork has been a “surprisingly easy and seamless collaboration, sans any drama. It’s going to be a special dinner, simply because we all have very different and highly stylized ways of cooking and entertaining. I honestly can’t imagine it being any easier.”
 
The upcoming November event at the Beard House will allow the chefs to showcase Northwest Arkansas’ unique culinary offerings, emphasizing the edible culture of Ozarkansas. Dishes include locally sourced ingredients such as Arkansas black
apples, pasture raised chicken, and lamb. Each chef’s most prized dish is also a reflection of his or her personality. Nelson says, “I’m most proud of the Ozark leg of lamb ‘ham’ stuffed with pickled cherry and black walnut sausage because it showcases local ranchers from Northwest Arkansas.”

“I am very excited to be cooking at this level with my neighbors, in such an amazing community in my home state,” says McClure, whose main course features chicken because he wants “to celebrate what chicken can be when it’s properly raised and prepared. People don’t know how delicious chicken can be.” He adds, “My goal at The Hive is to highlight Arkansas cuisine and ingredients, and to be able to do that in front of this audience is thrilling.”

The invitation and formation of the team created much excitement in the community, but it’s also been a lot of work. The chefs must supply all food and beverages for the performance as well as pay for their own transportation and accommodations while in New York. In order to raise the funds for the trip, the chefs have hosted both collaborative and individual fundraising events.

One such event was held in June, and, as the editor of Edible Ozarkansas, I was fortunate enough to get a seat at a table. All of the dishes were delicious, as were the drinks. The Bee’s Knees cocktail from The Hive got the evening off to a good start. The crowd especially seemed to enjoy the special touches such as the Intermitzo lollipops with a touch of ginger to cleanse the palate before our main courses. Dighero’s contribution of Field Pea, Swiss Chard, and Avocado Soup was my favorite of the night. It was the kind of dish that, as I ate it, I thought to myself, “If I never stop eating this, it might just be okay.”

I liked Dighero’s soup even more after learning it was inspired by Ruby Bridges, depicted in Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With. Bridges was the first African-American girl to attend the all-white New Orleans schools. Dighero relayed, “I had the pleasure of dining with Ruby several months ago, and that dinner had a profound effect on me personally. This soup tells her story in a way.”

Hintz explains the real significance of this invitation for the entire community by saying that “the connection between Bentonville and the James Beard Foundation is a game changer for our community. As the preeminent institution for the advancement of American culinary heritage, James Beard Foundation’s guidance and support for our efforts to strengthen our own emerging culinary identity has been critical.”

Hintz goes on to point out that beyond just the culinary honor, this invitation has “significant and positive economic and cultural benefits. Our connection to the James Beard Foundation also brings an element of gravitas to our efforts to grow
the local culinary scene.” The growth in the number of downtown Bentonville restaurants in the last few years is evidence of this interest in the culinary scene. The area has grown from two restaurants to sixteen, including four food trucks. Much of this growth is attributed to a boom in consumer demand with the influx of travelers visiting Crystal Bridges Museum
of American Art and the 21c Museum Hotel.

At press time, seats were still available for the dinner in November. Can't make it to New York? Rest assured, at least four Bentonville venues offer a feast fit for James Beard.

ROB NELSON, TUSK & TROTTER

Hometown:
I grew up in Hope, Arkansas, but Bentonville is home.

What was your favorite food when you were five?
My grandmother’s fried chicken. Whenever I think about that dish I can smell the chicken frying in her kitchen.

Is there any food you won’t eat?
It is hard for me to stomach tripe (no pun intended).

What is your go-to dinner when you’re exhausted?
Whatever my wife wants to cook me!

CASE DIGHERO, ELEVEN

Hometown:
Lamar, Missouri

What’s your favorite food now?
Entering the fall season I’m all about long, lazy braised foods. It doesn’t get better than comfort foods like short ribs or lamb shanks cooked for hours in wine, stock, and woody herbs until the meat falls off the bone.

Is there any food you won’t eat?
I despise caraway seeds. They make me gag. I can’t enjoy a  true Rueben sandwich because of those damned caraway seeds that are peppered throughout rye bread. Gross. Also, I would probably never eat human. It seems like it would be tough.

MATT MCCLURE, THE HIVE AT 21C

Hometown:
Little Rock, Arkansas

What was your favorite food when you were five?
My grandmother’s scrambled eggs. They were so creamy. Years later I found out that her secret was cream cheese.

Is there any food you won’t eat?
I tasted putrid shark when I was in Iceland. It’s a local delicacy there and definitely an acquired taste.

What is your go-to dinner when you’re exhausted?
Salami, aged cheddar, pickles, and crackers

TAMMY VARNEY, MERIDIENNE

Hometown:
Sacramento, California

What was your favorite food when you were five?
I feel like I should say something more profound here, but truly it was hotdogs - no bun - with tons of yellow mustard.

What is your go-to dinner when you’re exhausted?
Cold soba noodle salad with vegetables that don’t need a lot of prep: edamame, bean sprouts, shredded carrots, and herbs and a quick soy and tahini dressing. I crave veggies at home as a counterbalance to all the pastries I see daily.


EVENT MENU
Aperitif
“Bee’s Knee’s” cocktail – lavender, honey, whiskey,
and fresh squeezed lemonade
(Tusk & Trotter)
Starter
Charcuterie Board – Pâté de Champagne, housecured
pepper bacon, pork rillettes, chicken liver
mousse, Kent Walker artisan cheese, various jams
and mustards, red grapes, baguette
Paired with choice of Core Double IPA, ESP,
Raspberry Lager, or Grolsch
(A collaborative effort of Eleven, The Hive at 21c,
and Tusk & Trotter
)
Soup
Field Pea, Swiss Chard, and Avocado Soup
with cornbread and turnip greens
Paried with Keenan Summer Blend
(Eleven)
Intermezzo
Ginger Peach Lollipops
(Meridienne Dessert Salon)
Demi entrées
Catfish bouillabaisse with crawfish, charred corn,
fingerling potatoes, and tomato veloute
(Eleven)
Arkansas pasture-raised chicken, cabbage,
rice grits, mushrooms
Paired with Keenan Chardonnay
(The Hive at 21c)
Arkansas leg of lamb “ham” stuffed with pickled
blueberry-pecan sausage, herb salad,
mostarda demi-glace
Paired with Keenan Mernet
(Tusk & Trotter)
Dessert
Nectarine Tarte Tatin; roasted sweet corn crème
brulee; pollen-edged honey lavender tuile leaf;
nectarine reduction
Paired with Montinore Estate
Sweet Reserve Riesling
(Meridienne Dessert Salon)
Coffee and tea
Mignardises – a local strawberry pâté de fruit,
blueberry moon macarons,
chocolate covered stout marshmallows
(Meridienne Dessert Salon)


“The secret of good cooking is, first, having a love of it.
... If you’re convinced that cooking is drudgery, you’re never going to be
good at it, and you might as well warm up something frozen.”

– James Beard

Article from Edible Ozarkansas at http://edibleozarkansas.ediblecommunities.com/eat/road-to-james-beard-house-for-three-bentonville-chefs
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