As the nation watched Hurricane Sandy plow into the Eastern seaboard, submerging subway trains and flooding the field at LaGuardia airport, I sat at home on the phone with Debbie Gold, executive chef of The American Restaurant, drawing up Plan B.
Three of the six guest chefs for this year’s Friends of James Beard Foundation dinner in Kansas City, an annual event that I have now co-hosted twice, were coming from New York, where, within hours, the storm had left millions without power, thousands without homes, and everyone else in America on hold.
The morning after the storm, I received a text message from Gavin Kaysen of Café Boulud, one of this year’s guest chefs from New York City. The situation was grim, even for his restaurant on the Upper East Side, which was largely left untouched by the hurricane. With the city’s transportation system at near paralysis, like most businesses, Café Boulud was left short-staffed. Even if Kaysen could fly out of New York by week end (all three metropolitan airports – Newark, LaGuardia, and JFK – were, at the time, closed until further notice), he might not be able to leave his kitchen behind.
Brooks Headley, our guest pastry chef, sent word that his restaurant, Del Posto, which is below 39th Street in the Meatpacking district, had suffered tremendous loss due to the power outage. The clean-up he faced was great. He, too, was doubtful that he’d be able to come to Kansas City.
Michael Ginor, owner of Hudson Valley Foie Gras on Long Island, however, called to say that his businesses had weathered the storm better than expected. As long as we could get him on a flight to Kansas City, he would come. He even offered to drive to Philadelphia, if the three New York-area airports proved impassible.
Despite the uncertainty about these three guest chefs, Debbie Gold, Jamie Jamison (the general manager of The American Restaurant), and I, resolved to move ahead with the dinner, which was scheduled for Sunday, November 4. We hoped for the best, prepared for the worst.
Kaysen and Headley sent their formal regrets by mid-week, which gave Gold and her team just enough time to order products to cover their two courses.
In place of Kaysen’s squab “deux façons,” Gold presented milk-braised veal with grains, quince, and chanterelles. Replacing Headley’s hand-pulled stracciatella with sweet olive oil croutons and chewy fruit Macedonia (a course that I had greatly anticipated), The American Restaurant’s very talented pastry chef, Nick Wesemann, created a dessert based on the childhood snack “ants on a log.”
While Kaysen and Headley stayed in New York to oversee the recovery of their restaurants, Michael Ginor did make it to Kansas City. And so did the other three guest chefs: Joshua Skenes of Saison in San Francisco, Michael Cimarusti of Providence in Los Angeles, and Paul Qui, formerly of Uchiko, now opening his own restaurant, Qui, in Austin.
While the primary purpose of this annual dinner is to raise money for the James Beard Foundation, I have also come to use it as an opportunity to bring some of our country’s best chefs to Kansas City, bridging the gap between my hometown and the rest of the country.
Gold and I try our best to spend the event weekend exposing the visiting chefs to as much of Kansas City’s food culture as possible.
So, straight from the airport, I took Qui and Cimarusti to Oklahoma Joe’s, where we met Gold and Ginor for ribs, chicken, pulled pork, beans, slaw, and sausages, all of which we mopped with the restaurant’s signature sweet sauce. The next day, we rounded up barbecue from three other Kansas City restaurants – Fiorella’s Jack Stack, Big T’s, and Arthur Bryant’s – and brought it to the kitchen for staff meal. The spread of rib tips, brisket, and fixings was so wide and so long that it stretched and stacked across multiple tables.
The night before the event, Gold invited three other Kansas City chefs to cook for the visiting chefs at The American Restaurant. Formerly Gold’s sous chef, Alex Pope opened Local Pig, a butchery and charcuterie shop, earlier this year. Pope presented boudin blanc with black truffles on a phyllo nest. Ted Habiger of Room 39 served a poached duck egg atop a breaded and fried torchon of duck confit with pea shoots. And Patrick Ryan of Port Fonda gave us a grilled strip of pork tongue, with creamed hominy and Brussels sprouts, all spiked with a sizzling salsa macha.
For dessert, Wesemann served pumpkin “pain perdu” with garam masala ice cream, a spicy dessert on a cold night. And afterwards, he sugar-bombed us with his signature chocolate chip cookies and a plate of petits fours (which reappeared, with even more candies, the next night).
Then, there were late-night cocktails at Manifesto, Ryan Maybee’s underground “speakeasy.” And even later late-night cocktails at the newly opened live-jazz lounge, The Kill Devil Club, where we freed an enormous iceberg from a moat of punch and enjoyed smoky covers of Dusty Springfield and Etta James.
When I walked into the kitchen on the morning of the event, Qui was on the floor banging a bag of rice with a heavy pot. Those kernels he was cracking on the floor he later stewed into a porridge. When I paused to watch him pulling the strips of kombu out of the pot, he looked up at me, smiled, and confirmed what I was thinking: “Yep, it’s basically congee.”
But this was no ordinary congee. He ringed it with matsutake mushroom purée and topped it with thinly sliced matsutake, trimmed clams, a slice of kelp, and a sprig of sea bean. It was an unbelievably flavorful collection of umami that was intensified by warm dashi, which was poured over the porridge at the table. I spooned my way around the comforting carousel of treasures until I reached a nugget of foie gras, nestled in the porridge, that ended the tour in a creamy explosion. That was a beautiful dish.
We had to get a burn permit for Josh Skenes’s dish.
In a lone Weber grill sitting in the middle of the parking lot outside the restaurant (which is surrounded by the corporate offices of Hallmark), Skenes burned a pile of mesquite wood down to embers. Using the heat from those embers, he grilled turnips, which he incorporated into a rich lobster stock. Skenes gave me tastes of the stock as it cooked and reduced, so that I could experience the layers of flavor that developed over hours. It was a tremendous exercise.
He enriched some of the stock with sea urchin that had been cured in sea water, spooned it over slices of milk-poached turnips, and topped it all with frothed cooking juices. Together, it looked very simple. And yet, it had a tremendous depth of flavor, starting with the sweet, creamy richness of the sea urchin and lobster, followed by a structured middle of wine and garlic, and ending in the mild bitterness of turnip that cut through the preceding flavors and lingered in the mouth. I tried to eat the dish in small bites so I could experience this flavor cycle as many times as possible.
Michael Cimarusti’s dish was, by far, the most visually stunning.
Despite how beautiful it looked – a peachy block of salmon running into a lavender pool of purple cabbage froth – the fish was cooked so wonderfully, that it became the the main focus. I rarely order salmon because it is so often overcooked. But Cimarusti’s salmon was a jiggly piece of joy; silky, warm, and buttery. With it came a shard of skin, just as perfect in its form: fried to a crisp, light and clean.
Before dinner, there were passed hors d’oeuvres in the lounge and cocktails at the bar, shaken and stirred by Ryan Maybee and his bartenders from Manifesto.
During dinner, Kansas Citian Doug Frost, one of only three people in the world who hold both the title of Master of Sommelier and Master of Wine, walked us through the wine pairings.
And afterwards, Howard Hanna, chef of the Rieger Grill & Exchange, provided food for the guest chefs, cooks, and waitstaff in the upper dining room. He served thick slices of porchetta and beautifully baked rabbit pot pies. For dessert, he offered gingerbread ice cream macaron sandwiches. And, of course, there was plenty of wine and beer for all.
Now in its thirty-ninth year, The American Restaurant has achieved a level maturity that few restaurants in our country can or will. I’ve written about this restaurant’s amazing history before. I encourage you to read about it.
The American Restaurant has not only become a culinary icon, but it remains a gracious host and stage for our country’s best chefs when they come to Kansas City. For that, we have Hallmark, Debbie Gold, Jamie Jamison, and their staff at The American Restaurant to thank. Mounting events like this one not only gives Kansas City a chance to showcase our city’s talent, but it moves the national, culinary spotlight to our corner of the country. I hope it happens more often.
I also want to personally thank all of this year’s guest chefs – both local and foreign – who gave up their precious time and resources to make this dinner a success. Most of them agreed to come to Kansas City at my invitation, and that is tremendously humbling. Thank you all.
Gavin and Brooks, we wish you a speedy recovery. I promise that we’ll get you out to Kansas City soon.
Here is this year’s menu for the Friends of James Beard Foundation dinner at The American Restaurant. You can see a set of photos of the entire event weekend on my Flickr account. Otherwise, click on the courses below to see individual photos of the food.
Foie Gras “Truffles”
With Burgundy truffle, pistachio and Minus 8 film on pumpkin brioche.
Rice Wine Vinegar-Pickled Cucumbers
Crème fraîche and char roe.
Pastrami-Cured Pork Jowl
Pumpernickel crumb, mustard, cornichon.
Grilled Colette de Boeuf Crostini
Black garlic aioli, pickled enoki mushrooms.
Fried Chicken Oyster
Bonito and sesame.
(The American Restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri)
Yuzu, clams, koshi hikari, foie gras, and sea bean.
(Paul Qui; formerly of Uchiko and now opening Qui in Austin, Texas)
Boutari Assyrtiko Santorini AOSQ, Greece, 2009
Sauce of cooking juices, turnip custard, sea urchin cured in it’s seawater.
(Joshua Skenes; saison in San Francisco, California)
Höpler Grüner Veltliner, Burgenland, Austria, 2011
Torchon of Hudson Valley Foie Gras
Marbled with cocoa, served with duck prociutto, quince purée and brioche.
(Michael Ginor; Hudson Valley Foie Gras on Long Island, New York)
Strother Ridge Vignoles, Augusta AVA Missouri 2011
Cold-Smoked Silver Salmon
Braised Tahitian squash, red cabbage, hazelnut, and smoked bacon.
(Michael Cimarusti; Providence in Los Angeles, California)
Chateau Carbonnieux , Pessac-Leognan Blanc AOP, 2007
Barley, quince purée, sauce Perigourdine, bacon foam, and chanterelles.
(Debbie Gold; The American Restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri)
Domaine Eden Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, 2010
“Ants on a Log”
Raisin cake, peanut butter parfait, and celery snow.
(Nick Wesemann; The American Restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri)
Grappa, cardamaro, coffee liqueur, vanilla.
(Ryan Maybee; Manifesto in Kansas City, Missouri)
(Nick Wesemann; The American Restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri)
Photos: Paul Qui at The American Restaurant, Kansas City, Missouri; Michael Cimarusti, with Doug Frost and Ryan Maybee at line-up, The American Restaurant, Kansas City, Missouri; Paul Qui, with Sunshine Aiono and Erin Nelson at line-up, The American Restaurant, Kansas City, Missouri; Jonathan Ponzer, Josh Eans, and Joshua Skenes, The American Restaurant, Kansas City, Missouri; Karen and Jamie Jamison and a bowl of Kill Devil Punch, The Kill Devil Club, Kansas City, Missouri; Paul Qui’s “meshi” with matsutake; making mesquite embers, The American Restaurant, Kansas City, Missouri; Michael Cimarusti’s silver salmon with red cabbage and Tahitian squash; Josh Eans and Nick Wesemann plating desserts, The American Restaurant, Kansas City, Missouri; the dining room at The American Restaurant, Kansas City, Missouri; Doug Frost, Paul Qui, Joshua Skenes, Michael Ginor, Sophie Smith, Michael Cimarusti, Debbie Gold, Yumin Lin, Josh Eans, and Ryan Maybee, The American Restaurant, Kansas City, Missouri.