First off, we have to tell you that our lunch at The James Beard House as a part of their “Enlightened Eaters” series could not have gone any better than it did.
Wish we had something more disastrously interesting and dramatic to report, but alas…we do not. We were thrilled with everything about our day including the wonderful Beard House staff, the three-course ‘snack’ we presented, the way we got our message about modern Southern cooking across, the attentiveness of our friends (new and old) who came to see us, and the reception we received from all.
We started preparing for this moment the second we found out it was a possibility. Kristopher Moon of the JBF was in town for a fundraiser at Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen when he found himself at a table full of friends of ours who told him all about our book and this lovely blog (Thank you, Julia and Chey — so nice of y’all!). Once we sent him our cookbook, he said that we would be a good fit for the “Enlightened Eaters” series run by his co-worker Michelle Santoro. We talked with Michelle and agreed on the date of December 4th, which would have been my mom’s birthday. (Usually, I run the St. Jude marathon and raise funds to honor her favorite charity, but this year, I decided this new opportunity was going to be my focus. My mom would have been so proud of me for cooking in New York, no doubt. We went there often and always had a blast. It was our city.)
This fall, as we discussed the set-up of the event, it was requested that we provide a snack. “A snack…” we thought. How would we get our vision across? We’re pretty serious about how we present our food and what we choose to cook for any occasion, and we always aim to make something creative and memorable. We devised a plan: we would create a three-course meal in three bites. The theme would be ‘Smoke’ since the Memphis air is always permeated with the aroma of hickory.
Our menu came together quickly. The first bite was our Smoked Stuffed Date with Goat Cheese and Pecans. The second bite was Artichoke Hearts and Succotash over Smoked Cheddar Grits, our version of shrimp and grits. Dessert was Chipotle Chocolate Pudding with Sorghum Granola and Honey Cashew Cream. Each of these dishes came straight from The Southern Vegetarian Cookbook: 100 Down-Home Recipes for the Modern Table. The food was well received. People asked really thoughtful questions. It was such an honor to share our food and our ideas with this wonderful audience in such a beautiful, hallowed space.
Cooking at the James Beard House was such a thrill. Honestly, we don’t think anything else could top it. We shared the kitchen with the talented guys from Charleston’s 82 Queen; they were serving dinner that night at the Beard House. They were cool and worked with us while graciously sharing the kitchen space. (We knew that we would get along once we heard that they were from the South, too!) Amy plated the first and third courses while I worked on the components for the second course. I so hope there is a photo of me in a jacket and tie pan-frying artichoke hearts that day.
Our guests came in throughout the kitchen as we finished up our last dish. We were a little stressed, super-focused, but very grateful that people were coming to see us. We placed the last garnish just as the clock struck noon, the start time for our event.
We stepped outside to catch our breath. 5-4-3-2…1!
Kris gave us an amazing introduction that I will always remember. We talked to our audience about who we are, where we came from, and how we got involved in the world of food as a photographer and a writer. We explained that we had never been to culinary school, but we had been in the kitchens of some very talented chefs. That’s where we really learned how to cook, how to plate, and how to focus our flavors.
“It’s an honor for a chef to be invited to The James Beard House,” I said, “You can only imagine how it feels for us as home cooks!” Much of our talk focused on our journey from an overweight, sedentary couple to our current understanding of what it takes to be healthy, including moderation when it comes to bread and cheese and sugar, and, of course, actual exercise. For those of you who don’t know, I have lost 75 pounds and have gone from a couch potato to a marathoner and triathlete, and Amy has lost 30 pounds with a combination of yoga, dance, change of diet, and running. A slideshow of images from our blog and cookbook ran on a constant loop as we talked and laughed with those who come to see us.
As the last part of the experience, we had a book signing. It was wonderful to meet Susan Ungaro, the director of The Beard Foundation, and to chat with all of those who showed up to see us and hear what we had to say. Once that was over, we high-fived one another, hightailed it back to The Jade Hotel, and crashed for a few hours. We were exhausted, we were elated, and our adrenaline had finally evaporated.
We wouldn’t trade this experience for anything in the world. The best part is…we were invited back to talk about our upcoming second cookbook.
We can’t wait!