When acclaimed culinarian, cookbook author and teacher James Beard died in 1985, he left behind a three-story red brick brownstone in New York City’s tony West Greenwich Village. Shortly after Beard’s passing, a group of his friends and colleagues, led by cooking school founder Peter Kump, were prompted by the legendary Julia Child to do something with the house. A fundraising campaign was organized to purchase the home from Beard’s estate, and in 1986 the James Beard Foundation opened up the home 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,” according to a press release issued that day.
According to Izabela Wojcik, director of house programming at the foundation, “When Mr. Beard was alive, the home was always full of chefs, authors and other food professionals, and the foundation continues that tradition.”
On May 10, a select group of Cincinnati chefs, led by Jean-Robert de Cavel, traveled to New York to prepare a seven-course gastronomic feast at the Beard House in conjunction with Cincy in NYC, a seven-day event showcasing Cincinnati’s finest music and arts groups “road-tripping” to the Big Apple to perform at such famed venues as Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.
Before the group left for New York, CityBeat sat down with Cincinnati’s top chef to see how this elite group — including Jean Philippe Solnom of French Crust Café, Jose Salazar of Salazar, Julie Francis of Nectar Restaurant, Stephen Williams of Bouquet Restaurant and Wine Bar, David Cook of Daveeds and David Falk and Jeremy Lieb of the Boca Group — were chosen to participate in this exceedingly special event, as well as how so many top talents were able to agree on the details and work together in a notoriously tiny space.
CityBeat: How did the idea for the Beard Dinner come about?
Jean-Robert de Cavel: I felt like it would be something I always want to do — you know, put a few chefs together and go to James Beard.
So I called James Beard and shared with them Cincinnati in NYC [the concept] to see if we could be invited during that week.
CB: How did you pick this group of chefs?
JR: When James Beard contacted me back and told me that they would love to invite us, I started putting a group together. I felt like there are so many talented people in Cincinnati, and it was very hard. I felt like it should be a mix of different restaurants, then I decided it should be chef/owners, which really reduced the number of people. … I think it’s about friendship. I always felt that Cincinnati needed to be represented not as a single chef, but as a restaurant group, you know, showing people that we all realize that when people talk about cities they don’t talk about one restaurant, they talk about many different experiences they have in a city from very good, casual food to upscale experiences. And I think that when people talk about bigger cities, smaller cities, they may have their favorite restaurants, they always talk about the experience as a foodie town, and I think Cincinnati does have that today more than ever.
CB: How did you all agree upon the menu, and how did the menu come together?
JR: When I had the six chefs who were dedicated to do it, we all met together and really did it all together at one table without anybody really taking the lead. We all decided who’s going to do what and everybody will help everybody.
CB: You’ve been in the kitchen at The James Beard House; it’s not a roomy kitchen. New York kitchens are small, and you’ve got a really big group. You’re all used to having your own kitchens and your own staff. How do you think you’ll all work together in that tight space?
JR: I’ve been a few times, and it’s not a roomy kitchen (laughs). I think it’s the first time I’m going to be doing that with collaboration of other chefs. I think it’s gonna be actually a fun approach for the guests. I think the guests are really going to feel the friendship. ©