dinner: collaboration…

The last time I pushed back from the table at a collaboration dinner, I vowed I’d never attend another. They’re just so tricky.  You take a group of random chefs, put them in a random kitchen with random cooks, all of them trying to orchestrate their random plates of food, and, somehow, it’s supposed to […]


The last time I pushed back from the table at a collaboration dinner, I vowed I’d never attend another.

They’re just so tricky.  You take a group of random chefs, put them in a random kitchen with random cooks, all of them trying to orchestrate their random plates of food, and, somehow, it’s supposed to magically make sense to 100+ covers?  Rarely have I found the quality of the cooking or the experience at a collaboration dinner the same as that which I’d find if each chef were cooking out of their own kitchen.  And, to justify the expense of bringing in chefs from the four corners, entry fees to these events are usually exorbitant; when else are you going to be able to eat chefs X, Y, and Z’s food all in one seating?

And yet, I found myself helping Debbie Gold, Executive Chef of The American Restaurant, plan a collaboration dinner.

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George Mendes

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Selfishly, I’m trying to do my part to “build it” in Kansas City, to bring more attention and awareness to this vast fly-over country, which gets overlooked amidst the clamoring for stars and stripes on the coasts.  We exist too, you know.

And, having worked with Debbie Gold on a few collaboration dinners in the past, I knew we could raise some good money for a worthy cause.  In June, at a annual dinner benefitting Harvesters, a local food bank, we topped the event’s previous record by $20,000, thanks to the generous help of Sean Brock, Curtis Duffy, and Shawn Gawle, who flew to Kansas City to cook.

Encouraged by that success, Gold generously allowed me to help mount another dinner.

Given the history of The American Restaurant, it had become a tradition – started by Debbie Gold and her then-co-chef, Michael Smith, fifteen years ago – for the restaurant to host an annual dinner benefitting the James Beard Foundation.  But in recent years, the event had been dropped from the restaurant’s itinerary.  It was time to revive it.

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John Shields

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Normally, I don’t write about collaboration dinners – primarily for the reasons I’ve stated above; quite frankly, I’ve far more interesting meals to report.  The last one to appear on this blog was a collaboration dinner in New Orleans last year, at which Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Jerome Bocuse, and Scott Boswell rallied to benefit the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation.

Like that dinner, which was dubbed “the dinner of the decade,” this one was truly extraordinary. Beyond the big names and big money, the level of creativity and execution was unexpectedly high, the ebb and flow unusually coordinated.  Unlike most collaboration dinners I’ve attended, this one felt and tasted 110%.  I was impressed.  And its tale deserves to be told.

Together with Chef Gold, I had the immense pleasure and privilege of welcoming six of America’s most talented chefs to Kansas City this past weekend, each of whom donated their time, talent, and resources to the cause at hand.  To them, much is owed.  Between barbecue gavage, late-night cocktails, and even later hamburger runs, they, together with the staff at The American Restaurant, magically made an amazing dinner happen.

Instead of assigning dishes, Gold asked each chef to submit one.  Here is the menu that resulted (interestingly, every guest chef’s dish, except the dessert, included some kind of seafood):

Hors d’Oeuvres
(Debbie Gold; The American Restaurant)

Masa Cakes
Ricotta, zucchini blossom.

Pig’s Foot Croquette
Pumpernickel, pickled lettuce.

Corn Nut Shooter
Whipped popcorn and black truffle.

Hubert Clavelin Brut Comte Chardonnay
Tete de Cuvee Cremant du Jura, N.V. 

First Course
(George Mendes; aldea)

House-Cured Bacalao
Manila clam, coriander-bread “stuffing,” citrus.

Deusa Nai Albarino, Rias Baixas, Spain, 2010

Second Course
(Christopher Kostow; Meadowood) 

Baked Potato Cream
Pickled gherkin, oyster, caviar.

Alain Normand Chardonnay Macon-La Roche Vineuse
Burgundy, France, 2009

Third Course
(John Shields; TownHouse)

Barbecued Beets
Smoked mussels, whey, and hazelnut butter.

Heron Pinot Noir, California, 2010

Fourth Course
(Scott Anderson, elements)

Salt-Roasted Duck
Persimmon, surf clam, matsutake, celtuce.

Mas de Boislauzon, Cotes du Rhone-Villages, 2009

Fifth Course
(Curtis Duffy)

Nuoc Mau Braised Short Ribs
Caramelized peanut, finger limes, and rau ram.

Von Hovel Oberemmerler Hutte, Riesling Spatlese, Saar, 2007

Sixth Course
(Marc Aumont; The Modern)

Milk Chocolate Dacquoise
Lemon maramalade and raspberry sorbet.

Vietti Moscato d’Asti, Piedmont, Italy, 2010

Petits Fours
(Marc Aumont; The Modern)

Passionfruit-Chocolate Macarons
Amaretti Cookies with Dried Cherries
Passionfruit Caramel-Chocolate Lollipops

Pistachio-Almond Nougat
Raspberry Caramels

Chocolate Bon Bons
Coconut-Tea Financiers with Tahitian Vanilla-Ganache 

To see all of the photos from this meal, CLICK HERE.

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5th Course: Nuac Mau-Braised Short Ribs

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It isn’t a coincidence that I’ve been to every one of their restaurants this year.  These six are among the most relevant, and regnant chefs in America right now.  Collectively, they boast seven Michelin stars, three Food & Wine Best New Chefs titles, and two James Beard Award-nominations, among many other accolades.  I was anxious to experience their cooking again.

Favorite dish?

I’m not being polite or politic: I couldn’t name one.

I loved Mendes’s barely cooked salt cod for its texture.  Poached in oil, it was soft as butter, smooth as silk.  He nailed it.

I loved Kostow’s use of dill, my favorite herb, which, together with pickled gherkins, helped temper the richness of a frothy “Baked Potato Cream” with caviar and oysters.  Think: millionaire’s tartar sauce.

Shields wanted to acknowledge Kansas City’s barbecue primacy, so he smoked beets for hours, dehydrating them so that they had the texture of dried prunes, slightly leathery, intensified in flavor.  With them, he served mussels, plump and delicate, and curls of tissue-thin sheets of black garlic and apple puree.  Smokey and bitter, with a slight, earthy sweetness, this was an extraordinary meeting of flavors and textures.

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Christopher Kostow and Scott Anderson

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How Asian of Anderson to mix meat and seafood, his upbringing in Japan apparent in the flavors here: squid ink, persimmon, surf clam, matsutake, celtuce, and salt-roasted duck. Very convincing.  Very good.

And then there was Duffy’s short ribs, glazed in a complex reduction that sported a whiff of fish sauce. The meat had been braised just shy of its melting point, served with crunchy peanuts glistening with a caramelized shell.  If it sounds rich, it was. But to the side, was a halved finger lime, which we squeezed over the beef, so that the fruit’s pink “caviar” came tumbling out, a tart and bright contrast to the rest.  To pair, a splash of Spätlese.  Bold yet balanced, this dish was perfect.  I know many who declared it their favorite.

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Petits Fours

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The challenge for Marc Aumont was ending the meal on a high note.  Having worked with Gabriel Kreuther at The Modern for seven years, he’s used to following an extraordinary act.  And he does so gracefully, and seemingly effortlessly.  His desserts are among the most beautiful and delicious I’ve had (his baba ranks among the very best I’ve had; his prune and armagnac ice cream haunts me to this day).

I don’t know if he intended to impress us with the quality of his craftsmanship, or with quantity.  He succeeded at doing both.

His Milk Chocolate Dacquoise I’ve had several times at The Modern, and I was thrilled to have it again at The American Restaurant. It looks thick and weighty, but this bar of chocolate, topped with a length of Florentine, was light as air, brightened by a side of lemon marmalade and raspberry sorbet.  This was the high note he had hoped to hit.  Simple, sophisticated, confident, delicious.

Thereafter followed an onslaught of sweets, including macarons, chocolate bon bons, nougats, caramels, and a box of coconut-black tea financiers filled with Tahitian vanilla-infused ganache; favors to take home.

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Josh Skenes and Viet Pham

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Good food is rarely complete without good company.  And I had plenty of it.  In addition to being surrounded by many close friends from Kansas City, I was honored to welcome a number of good friends from abroad, who flew in to attend this dinner, including Solveig (with whom I’ve shared many, many good meals and adventures), Harpo (whom I met at “the dinner of the decade“), Rosario (whom I also met at “the dinner of the decade,” and with whom I made much mischief and mayhem in Lyon at the Bocuse d’Or), and chefs Josh Skenes of saison and Viet Pham of forage.  Thank you all for making me the happiest boy at the party.

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Johnny Good Times and his friend Curtis Duffy.

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To chefs Anderson, Aumont, Duffy, Kostow, Mendes, and Shields, thank you for your time and talent. I know that there are a lot of other important matters to which you could have attended, not the least of which was sleep.  Thank you for supporting the James Beard Foundation.  And thank you for helping put Kansas City in the spotlight for one night.  You do us much honor.

To Debbie Gold, Jamie Jamison, and the staff of The American Restaurant, thank you for hosting such a wonderful weekend and dinner, and for welcoming me into your fold for the while.  You are true professionals.

I’ve said it many times before, if not on this blog, then under my breathe, hesitant to utter it aloud for fear it will unhitch this gravy train: I’m not sure how 2011 could get any better.

The American Restaurant
2545 Grand Avenue
Kansas City, Missouri 64111

Photos: Christopher Kostow’s “Baked Potato Cream,”  George Mendes plating;  John Sheilds presenting his dish at staff line-up; Curtis Duffy’s nuoc mau-braised short rib; Christopher Kostow and Scott Anderson at the pass; Marc Aumont’s petits fours; Josh Skenes and Viet Pham; “Johnny Good Times” (John Shields) and Curtis Duffy.

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