Story and photos by guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes:
Last Thursday, Sepia came to the James Beard House, 127 W. 12th, in New York. For the guests, it was an exceptional event. For the Beard House crew, it was love.
It's hard to know when the food world's most sophisticated staff fell for Andrew Zimmerman (at right), but they fell hard and wholly. Mark this, because they're a hard crew to impress. Food-defining multi-course meals, prepared by chefs who've flown in from across the planet? Every day, man. They do this every day.
Those who have been stoveside with Zimmerman will not be surprised. Whatever space Sepia's chef inhabits, it is intoxicating.
Being in the kitchen with Zimmerman is like taking a tour of Wonderland with Lewis Carroll. There's even a lexicon:
Charation: Is the char cooking?
Janky: Kind of, but not quite, like hinky (See also janked, as in "That [broken] scallop is janked.")
Glazation: The act of becoming glazed.
In the Beard House kitchen, words were cut from air, used to garnish sentences and either discarded or recycled, depending on context and need.
I arrived at 1 o'clock, in the full flush of prep time. Pots, pans and people were like atoms: jammed and moving. Zimmerman was cutting carrots into precise lozenges. A moment later, he was on the far side of the space, joining pastry chef Cindy Schuman for a measurement conference. Should the lemon shortbread biscuits be 2-by-4? 2-by-3-3/4? 2x3-9/16?
The pace picked up around snatched bites of pizza. Sous chef Miles Schaefer juggled ingredients and tasks. Mint was minced in one corner; fresh vegetables, pureed in another. Cook Shea Montanez appeared to be attached to the oven by invisible chains. There, he coaxed Three Sisters Garden's grits (soon to be united with shrimp) and English pea soup to perfection.
Taking me at my word that I had affinities for the minute and the detailed, Zimmerman assigned me a series of small, painstaking tasks - but "painstaking" was everywhere. One intern gave orbs of frozen liquid fois gras two layers of coating. Another composed a Bremen Town version of headcheese (below), each layer smaller than the one below, until it got to the stage of tweezers and embryonic leaves. Thin slices of avocado formed beds for house-cured sardines complemented by scallions and lemon. Schaefer decapitated Illy paper cups, making short towers to hold plastic wrap away from careful constructions of appetizers.
Schuman set me to baking shortbread. Whatever their measurements, the sweet biscuits looked elegant. Once baked and glazed, they joined their cousins in the rack: swirls of lime, checkerboards of chocolate and vanilla rimmed with red, breath-delicate brown tuilles, infant Linzer tarts and thick pecan squares.
From the buzz, Zimmerman's voice emerged: "Thirteen of those and eight of these, for a grand total of not enough." Bustle converged on need.
Between discussions and instructions, time marked itself with scent:
1:49 p.m. smelled like Eden: fresh herbs, bright vegetables, pea soup reminiscent of a spring garden.
4:07 p.m., warm, buttery artichokes
4:12 p.m. was all mint, scythe-sharp and intense