On Friday, May 19 at 9:00 pm, American Masters premieres a new documentary about America's First Foodie, James Beard.
You would think that serving food at the James Beard Awards gala, held last night at Chicago’s Civic Opera House, would be a nerve-wracking experience for a chef. Not only do you have to prepare tons of dishes at a cramped table without easy access to a true kitchen, you’re offering your own food up for judgment to the elite of the American culinary world – the Awards are often called the Oscars of food. (Read more about the ceremony and the two Chicago winners here.)
But many of the thirty-odd chefs crammed behind tables wedged into corners and against poles throughout the Opera House seemed excited and humbled. “It feels awesome,” said Vishwesh Bhatt, who was up for Best Chef: South, having been nominated the previous three years as well. (Rebecca Wilcomb of New Orleans’s Herbsaint took home the honor.) “These guys are a bunch of friends, so it’s a great honor to be asked [to serve food at the Awards]. Look at the list of people serving food – to be part of that list is awesome.”
Bhatt is the chef at Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi, where he combines the Indian cuisine of his childhood with the Southern cooking of his adopted home. At the gala, he was serving cold poached royal red shrimp with corn bhel.
“I’m a Southern chef; I want to feature some southern ingredients: so, royal red shrimp,” he explained. “But I also want to pay homage to where my family came from. So it’s a very Indian dish using Southern ingredients. Bhel is like a street food, it usually has a lot of flavors: spicy, sweet, salty, different textures. It represents who I am and what I do.”
Chicago holds special significance for Bhatt – who he is and what he does. 60 years ago this month, his father received a scholarship to the University of Chicago, bringing him to the United States for the first time. “If he hadn’t come to Chicago, I wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing,” Bhatt said.
Chicago is also important in Kevin Nashan’s history. Nashan, who won Best Chef: Midwest this year after two prior nominations and six previous years as a semifinalist, is the chef and owner of Sidney Street Cafe and Peacemaker Lobster & Crab Co. in St. Louis. But his father grew up in Chicago, and he himself was born here. After growing up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Nashan began his professional culinary career at Chicago’s renowned La Francais.
At the Awards, Nashan was serving a dish that combined the myriad elements of his background. “I’m both Hispanic and Polish,” he explained, his voice quickening with excitement as he began to discuss his food. “In honor of my Polish side, we’re making pierogis: crawfish and sweetbread pierogis. Then it’s a kind of homage to the Hispanic side, with hatch green chile, dark chocolate, lime zest. I wanted to make something that’s super important to me, and reflects things I grew up with. You cook the stuff you know and the stuff you love.”
Nashan had brought a whole team to the awards: the chefs de cuisine of his restaurants, a sous chef, and more. “It’s a village, so the Award is more important for the team, past and present,” he said. Nor does his desire to share the honor stop at his own team. “I wish all of us could stand up there, we all deserve it,” he said of the other chefs nominated.
Such eagerness to acknowledge the achievements of other chefs, to generously share food and taste the efforts of their comrades, characterized the entire event. These people love food, and they love to see people eat it.
“You guys gotta eat it, so you know what I’m talking about,” Michael Rossi urged as he began to describe the food he was serving. He didn’t have to ask twice. Rossi is the executive chef of The Ranch in Anaheim, California, and, like Bhatt and Nashan, had traveled with a whole team whom he was keen to acknowledge.
Rossi’s dish was a salmon tartare with plump English peas, yuzu kosho, and wasabi aioli. “Yuzu kosho is a Japanese citrus and chili mix.” He lovingly narrated the entire tasting experience. “The dish just pops everywhere. So much texture with it: crispy, creamy, velvety. You’ll taste it five minutes later. The flavors keep building in your mouth.”
Does serving acclaimed chefs daunt him? Nope. “When you make something good, you just gotta believe in it.” At the James Beard Awards, there’s a lot of food – and a lot of wondrous chefs – to believe in.