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A Sepia-tinted evening at the James Beard House

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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.

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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


The Beard House staff arrived, made suggestions about flow and service and disappeared to arrange tables. Zimmerman had filled every seat in the house.

Guests grinned through the kitchen, greedily eyeing their future. Appetizers were rolling: sardines and headcheese being plated; balls of foie being turned to hot liquid. Squeezing by, people greeted Zimmerman as if he were the rock star he once wanted to be. (If you meet him, ask about curiously strong mints. The answer won't be Altoids.)

The chef dotted a plate with precise spots of aioli and flew to another task. An overeager photographer removed half of the aioli with her jacket. Everybody in the kitchen had nine jobs and was doing 10. I grabbed the pastry bag and piped aioli spots, praying for accuracy.

The soup, an exercise in precision plating, had three people working in carefully choreographed unison. From ricotta quenelles through greens to bright nasturtiums, the square plates defined the imminent season. (Springtime was two days away.) Garnished dishes, in all of their delicate beauty, were set before the guests, and soup was poured at the table.

"The first 20 plates are the hardest," Zimmerman observed.

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There was barely time to appreciate the simple visual of round scallop beside dark square of black pudding. Zimmerman called, "Do I have charation?" Char was happening, a voice assured from the far side of a wall.

Plates, fish and other elements appeared. The chef moved from space to space, unflappable, observing, encouraging, nudging, tweaking, keeping everything running smoothly. When an intern grew flustered, Zimmerman spoke quietly, his voice cutting through confusion. "Stop. Breathe. Okay. Start again." And all was well.

The char went out, with sauerkraut, mustard, apple and toasted rye gnocchi. The interns and I took advantage of a lull and grabbed a couple of leftover gnocchi apiece. They were light and bready, the sort of food you taste once and then crave on a regular basis, at home and away.

Next up, rounds of porchetta-style rabbit with morels, asparagus and jus. "It's easy plating," Zimmerman promised: morels to either side, asparagus atop morels, rabbit in the middle. Schaefer appeared, provided and vanished, a Cheshire Cat with a red bandanna and an endless grin. Plates shimmied down the line. My gloved fingers were slick with asparagus. 75 dishes went by magically, both interminably and swiftly.

One of the Beard crew appeared, told us that we had a few minutes of breathing room and added, "I love your kitchen, chef." Hot hands grabbed bottles of cold water. Supplanting Montanez, Schaefer plated dishes with generous mounds of morels and asparagus.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"It's for the dishwashers," Schaefer crooned. "Gonna show 'em some love."

The clean counters were ready for one last savory course: thick diagonal cuts of lamb loin with artichokes, white bean puree and salsa verde. In comparison with the soup, the lamb was simple. Better than going from easy to complex while moving from wired to tired - but complexity was about to return.

In the next room, bordered by five tables and a tall rack, Schuman was arranging dessert. Numbered plates bore handmade truffles (mango, Earl Grey, ancho chile . . .) and sweet biscuits, each as distinctively shaped as flavored.

Tasks were given: five drops of blueberry curving along each plate, lemon shortbread set on a plump drop of lemon-ricotta cream, more cream swirled atop the shortbread, almond granola scattered, candied lemon sprinkled like fairy dust . . . and it was a day.

Every chef who comes to the Beard House speaks with the guests. Zimmerman had to do it thrice: once in the boardroom, once in the room between kitchen and garden and once in the dining room.

The questions in every guest's mouth pertained to blood pudding. These weren't the squeamish queries of people anticipating an incitement of repugnance - ew, pig's blood. These were the tender questions of people who have discovered a new illicit pleasure . . . and like it.

Guests finished their wine and coffee and disappeared, slowly, reluctantly, into their separate nights. Zimmerman and company reclaimed lost spoons, sipped glasses of wine, chased Templeton rye with shots of pickle juice, and kept packing.

At this point, anybody else would have been getting nods and nudges and reminders of the hour. As far as the Beard House was concerned, Sepia's crew could stay until the colors of the world faded to aged photo. Members of the house staff had clocked out and were lingering. Nobody wanted the night to end, and everybody wanted to taste just one more moment of the love.

14 Comments

The food,wine and Seanan's coverage of a wonderful night gave Chef Andrew,his staff and that of the Beard House the flavor of excellence.

What a beautifully written piece! Wish I could have been there with my daughter and son-in-law!

this piece is so delectably written--i feel like i'm in the kitchen, tasting the food, soaking in the scents, ensconced in the busy camaraderie of a well-run kitchen. loved reading this luscious piece!

As the wine director of the evening's festivities, and as a veteran sommelier of four Beard House dinners, the Sepia dinner was by far the most cohesive, well-executed and beautifully prepared of them all. This has everything to do with the talent, leadership and positive energy of Andrew and Cindy and the strong work ethic of Sous Chefs Miles and Shea. This nicely written piece does a great job of capturing the spirit of the evening. I was proud to have been a part of it.

I felt like I was right there with Seanan...and man, how she made me wish I was!

That sounds - and looks - like an amazing meal. I want to check out the Beard House next time I am in New York.

If words were food, I'd eat Seanan Forbes' prose. Every day. This post evokes, entices and seduces with the skill of a master chef sparing no detail in a multi-course feast fit for kings and queens.

The night was an exotic, sumptuous and coveted treat for the fortunate guests. Reading this post? The next best thing.

Raise a glass to Schaefer for remembering the dishwashers -- and another to Seanan for highlighting his admirable conscientiousness in her scrumptious story!

Mmmmm. Thanks for sharing a delicious evening in such scrumptious detail!

I love a chef who remembers to take care of the dishwashers. It sounds like it was an amazing meal -- it was certainly a delicious write-up.

my mouth is watering!

Seanan. Thank you. I feel like I was there----watching, smelling, tasting, sipping, smiling.

What a delicious post!

I love getting the behind-the-scenes glimpse. What a night! The loving description of the food elevates the world around me.

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Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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This page contains a single entry by Janet Rausa Fuller published on March 23, 2010 10:19 AM.

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