What’s a not-so-secret ingredient in the rising soufflé that is the burgeoning local food movement? The James Beard Foundation. Inspired by cookbook author and teacher James Beard who died in 1985, the Foundation continues his legacy of educating and inspiring people to “celebrate, nurture, and honor America’s diverse culinary heritage.” The Foundation is probably best known for the awards they bestow upon chefs and cookbook writers (often referred to as the Oscars of the food world) and for their dinners in James Beard’s historic New York City townhouse. I’ve been to one dinner at the Beard house. It’s a unique experience to enjoy a fine meal served family-style in the home of a culinary trailblazer and to pass through the kitchen while the visiting chef is preparing it (the night that I was there, the chef was from restaurant Acquavit). But I believe that the Foundation’s greater impact is in taking these dinner extravaganzas on the road, bringing celebrity chefs into communities around the country to celebrate local foods.
I had the opportunity to attend a Celebrity Chef Tour last weekend in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. The event was held at the Wainer Family Farm, a stretch of bucolic agricultural land on the southeastern coast of Massachusetts.
This area of Massachusetts isn’t especially well known. It’s eclipsed by Cape Cod and the islands–Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket –which lie across Buzzards Bay and attract many visitors to its sandy shores.
The relative obscurity of the area suits the locals just fine. Increasingly, though, it’s a food-lover’s destination spot. The decision to host a James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour here for the first time is one example. Chefs and foodies are drawn to the bounty of fresh produce, fertile farmland, thriving fishing and shellfish industries, and grass-fed livestock. The beauty of the coastline and its marshy inlets behind verdant pastures and dry-stone walls has lured many who visit to return and stay (myself included).
A pre-dinner reception permitted the roughly 120 attendees a chance to wander among the fields and peek into the makeshift kitchen where chefs and staff were preparing six appetizers and seven courses.
Guests sipped cocktails accented with local herbs and flowers. They nibbled canapés such as smoked trout with trout caviar and grilled cucumber (prepared by Chef Mary Dumont), shucked oysters from Island Creek Oysters, and an elaborate charcuterie board with cured meats and pâtés created by Chef Marc Pauvert, a widely acclaimed Master Butcher.
As the sun sank in a pool of crimson and gold, guests took seats at tables in a well-lit and impressively clean barn. Each place setting included seven wine glasses and six forks, plus a party favor of a salt cellar made by a ceramic artist from the Northern Clay Center in Minnesota.
Welcoming the guests, Henry Wainer, president and owner of Sid Wainer & Son, conveyed his passion for the local bounty and the importance of preserving farmland and supporting farmers.
Emily Luchetti, a celebrated pastry chef, cookbook author, and chair of the Beard Foundation’s Board of Trustees, made her pastry mark in San Francisco but maintains close ties to the South Dartmouth area. She described how the local seasonal flavors and fresh produce often surpass what she can find in California. The announcement by Andrew Burns that a new slaughterhouse is being constructed by a farmers’ cooperative in the neighboring town of Westport was greeted with enthusiasm. That will be a significant improvement over trucking livestock to Maine, New York, or New Hampshire.
Seven very creative chefs—representing kitchens from New York to Washington to Boston (see details below) and cutting across numerous nationalities and culinary specialties—were the evening’s star attraction. Each chef took responsibility for one appetizer and one dinner course. They shared the kitchen workspace behind the barn. A veritable army of helpers ensured that everyone was served at once. There was no uncomfortable waiting or food getting cold.
For the initial course, Chef Marc Pauvert created a frisée salad with duck gizzards confit, drizzled with vinaigrette and a crumbling of crispy bacon. It was followed by Chef Mary Dumont’s Nantucket Bay scallop crudo with heirloom tomatoes and cucamelon (a doll-sized cucumber that looks like a miniature watermelon), with a smear of lemon verbena and nasturtium pistou sauce.
Vegetables took center stage in Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley’s dish of eggplant, grilled squash, and chopped herb gremolata. That was followed by halibut slow-cooked in white wine and accompanied by summer squash, chickpeas, and leafy herbs, prepared by Chef Ashfer Biju.
Ricotta gnocchi atop a bed of smoked sweet corn purée by Chef Daniel Bruce smoothed the way for Chef Chris Cronin’s course: beef that had been dry-aged 60 days (from a steer raised at neighboring Jordan Farm), slowly turned on a spit for hours, and served with Cipollini onions and lobster mushrooms. Although everyone’s appetites were sated by this point, the dessert course was an irresistible tour-de-force from Chef Michael Mignano of blueberry croustade with verbena sabayon and a handmade creamy popsicle made of sweet Concord grapes. No plates needed scraping.
As each course was served, the chef who prepared it offered a few remarks. They hand-picked harvests from the farm earlier that day and reveled in working with locally sourced meat, fish, and vegetable. Servers cleared the plates between courses, as others poured the next wine into fresh glasses. Each course was matched with a wine pairing, starting with a Chateau d’Esclans Rock Angel Rosé from Provence, followed by equally superb wines from Spain, California, and Italy.
Jeff Black, the emcee for the night and the Celebrity Chef Tour Event Director, told a story about how early in the Beard Foundation’s work, chefs occasionally took offense at being asked to work alongside other chefs. But that attitude wasn’t evident here. The chefs mingled outside the kitchen, chatting amiably and looking relieved after their courses had been served. They took obvious pleasure in sharing a kitchen, free-flowing conversation and wine, and an appreciative audience.
By the end of the night, nary a wineglass remained dry nor a fork unsullied. Guests sauntered out of the barn to a moonlit sky while shadows danced on the fields. There was a sense of amazement and gratitude for the bounty made possible by the local farmers and coastal waters. For one night at least, this quiet stretch of Massachusetts felt like the fiery center of a mythic culinary universe.
Daniel Bruce is the chef at Meritage restaurant and Boston Harbor Hotel
Mary Dumont was the chef at Harvest in Cambridge and is opening Cultivar restaurant in Boston
Michael Mignano is pastry chef at Perrine in the Pierre Hotel, New York City
Ashfer Biju is chef at Perrine in the Pierre Hotel, New York City
Marc Pauvert, master butcher, is chef at the Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore
Marjorie Meek-Bradley is chef/owner of several restaurants–Smoked & Stacked, Ripple, and Roofers Union– in Washington, DC.
Chris Cronin is chef at the new Farm & Coast Market in South Dartmouth, MA
For information about upcoming James Beard Foundation’s Celebrity Chef Tour Dinners, visit here. Proceeds from ticket sales support the Foundation’s scholarship program. To learn more about James Beard Foundation’s other events and programs, check here.