Inside Cameron Mitchell's James Beard Dinner
It's 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 7 when I arrive for dinner at a nondescript brownstone in Manhattan. The door slightly ajar, I walk right in. The first thing I notice at 167 W. 12th St. is the wallpaper, yellowish in hue with a corn-on-the-cob motif framed by waterfowl. Straight ahead, a narrow, winding staircase greets me. The townhouse is four stories, and nearly every inch of it is taken up by tables set for dinner.
The décor is dated, a bit frayed—nonprofit chic, if you will. But this is hallowed ground. The house's history is told through black-and-white photos of James Beard, the “dean of American cookery,” and his books that line the walls.
This is the James Beard House—Beard's actual home until he died, headquarters of the James Beard Foundation and the site of more than 200 esteemed dinners a year. On Dec. 7, it is Columbus' own Cameron Mitchell Restaurants' opportunity to impress.
An Exclusive Group
Leading the CMR team this night, on behalf of CMR's Ocean Prime brand, is chef Brian Hinshaw, an 18-year company veteran based in Columbus. On the Monday before the dinner, I called him to take the temperature of his team, or “guild” in company parlance. It's a Manhattan dinner, but the CMR vice president and executive corporate chef puts it in Columbus terms:
“It's like Michigan week,” Hinshaw quips. That is, if The Game was a fine-dining, multi-course event for 80—complete with wine pairings, truffles, foie gras and prime steak.
“For chefs it's a bigger, deeper meaning—one of the highest honors that you can get in the profession,” Hinshaw says.
Executive chef Bill Glover of Gallerie Bar & Bistro can relate. In 2015, he became the first Columbus-based chef to be invited to cook at the Beard House. To Glover, having Columbus chefs and entrepreneurs being recognized by the James Beard Foundation, famed for its scholarship program and the James Beard Awards, is nothing but positive for the city. “For Columbus, the fact that we have Jeni [Britton Bauer] as a [James Beard Award] book winner and a couple of folks now who have cooked there—that's a really big deal,” Glover says.
But the honor of an invitation to cook at the Beard House comes with certain challenges: It's up to the restaurants to supply the product, the kitchen is cramped, the equipment isn't always up to snuff, and they're working with servers who aren't their own. The only answer, as Glover would say, is to just roll with it.
A Most Gracious Host
You can probably pick Julia Child, Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay out of a lineup. But James Beard?
The Portland, Oregon, native—a contemporary of Child's—was a bow tie-wearing eccentric, television personality, teacher and prolific cookbook author. Long before Child's television show, The French Chef, aired in 1963, Beard hosted the first cooking show on network TV in 1946. He championed a revolution in American cookery, farmers markets and fresh ingredients.
And he loved throwing a good party.
He often hosted dinners for friends, authors and food industry insiders at his Greenwich Village brownstone. Before Beard died in 1985 at the age of 81, Child advocated for his townhouse to be preserved as a gathering place to celebrate American gastronomy. Peter Kump, one of Beard's former cooking school students and founder of the Institute of Culinary Education, took Child's advice and purchased the home from Beard's estate. In 1986, he founded the James Beard Foundation.
James Beard Dinner Eve
Chefs have to be invited to cook at the Beard House, and CMR's invitation arrived at a fitting time for the Columbus-based company, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this October.
Ocean Prime is the biggest of CMR's 13 brands (with more on the way), having grown to 14 Ocean Prime locations coast to coast since Mitchell's Ocean Club debuted in 1999 at Easton. Restaurateur Cameron Mitchell recalls being terrified on opening night of Ocean Prime New York in the fall of 2015. The high-end steak and seafood restaurant is about a five-minute walk from Rockefeller Center and commands $100,000 a month in rent. It was a risky project, Mitchell says, that took $11 million to open.
Now, just over two years later, the Midtown restaurant headed by executive chef Eugenio Reyes is CMR's top-performing venue.
On the night before CMR's “Ultimate Surf & Turf” Beard Dinner (Hinshaw uses words like “over the top” and “luxe” to describe the theme), I arrive at the packed Ocean Prime NY around happy hour during the team's final hours of preparation. Practice runs through the entire five-course dinner had taken place at Easton in recent weeks, and products had been shipped to New York through CMR's longtime partner Michael's Meats.
When I find chef Hinshaw in the Ocean Prime kitchen, he's cheerful and laid-back amid the chaos of a Midtown Manhattan restaurant going about its nightly business.
Just inside the kitchen door I'm surprised to find Ryan Valentine, the company's director of beverage and one of CMR's original staffers, wearing a suit and cutting limes, handing them off to beverage operations manager Andrea Hoover, who operates a juicer. Her charge is to create three fresh cocktails to pair with the hors d'oeuvres.
Deeper into the kitchen's cacophony I spot CMR regional chefs Ian Rough and Jaime Kline portioning deep red slabs of line-caught ahi tuna donated by Boston's North Coast Seafoods. (Nearly all of the product for the charitable dinner was donated by CMR's purveyors, Hinshaw says, save for a showpiece ice sculpture.)
A few feet away, executive pastry chef Summer Schott has claimed a counter and is ladling chocolate mirror glaze onto double chocolate tortes. “We're in the holiday season, so I know we're in everyone's way, but everyone's been so nice and helpful,” she says. “It's just one big family here.” Then, as if on cue, the Ocean Prime NY staff lets out a roar, and Schott explains that each CMR kitchen has its own chant.
By 6:30 p.m. the Beard team is mostly done for the night, and Hinshaw's in a contemplative mood, the weight of the moment starting to settle. “This is not about me; it's about our team,” he says. “To think about Eugenio [Reyes], he started as a dishwasher about 18 years ago, and he's the executive chef of Ocean Prime in New York City. … It's very sentimental to me.”
A Performance Space for Chefs
At around 5:30 p.m. the next day, I find the CMR team in the Beard House's modest kitchen on the ground floor. Like Super Bowl players, the chefs are sporting special uniforms for the occasion—their white chef coats embroidered with the James Beard Foundation logo.
Soon, Mitchell arrives with his wife, Molly, and son Charlie, who attends college in New York. Around 6:30 the chefs give a run-through of the dishes to the Beard House maître d'hôtel, Jose Lucio, as well as the service team and media, who all crowd into the kitchen. I start to hear the hum of guests arriving behind me as coats are checked, Champagne bottles are popped, and the ice sculpture is transformed into a shellfish tower.
Cocktail hour kicks off with a trio of hors d'oeuvres (hello, caviar) and cocktail pairings. One of the remarkable things about the Beard House is the guests' freedom to wander through the kitchen. In fact, the only way to get to the glass atrium, where the cocktail hours are held, is by walking through the kitchen. “A performance space for chefs” is how Izabela Wojcik, JBF director of house programming, describes it.
There in the atrium, Andrea Hoover is talking to guests about the three cocktails she prepared—one each of rum, tequila and gin.
“Were you here when we broke a bunch of glasses?” she asks as she hands me a pink gin cocktail. (Her boss, Ryan Valentine, was the culprit.) The cocktail, featuring Guild Series Gin, Lillet Rose and lemon, is a nice nod to Columbus; the gin is a collaboration with Watershed Distillery.
When the cocktail hour ends, guests begin vacating the kitchen and atrium to take their seats. The kitchen's previously chaotic counter is now empty, like an early morning runway just before flights start taking off. After a year of preparation, it's finally time for dinner.
Upstairs in the second-floor dining room, guests squeeze in between tables, taking care not to upset the glassware that dominates the tabletops. My table sits up a few stairs off this main room, on a small platform with—no kidding—mirrors on the ceiling. (Beard was known to have his proclivities.) This is where Beard slept, his feet inches away from the windows looking out over West 12th Street.
Maine lobster bisque kicks off the meal, which Valentine pairs with a 2016 William Fevre Chablis, clean enough to cut through the richness of the bisque. It's followed by a course of goat cheese ravioli, paired with an Italian white, a 2015 Feudi di San Gregorio Greco di Tufo.
In the third course, I'm reacquainted with the ahi tuna from the night before. Named Ahi Tuna Rossini, it's the most “luxe” dish of the night: tuna topped with seared fois gras and generous truffle shavings. It's accompanied by a Burgundy, a 2014 Louis Jadot Gevrey-Chambertin.
The fourth course, a prime NY strip au poivre, receives my favorite pairing of the night, a 2013 Chimney Rock Elevage. The big wine was a stunner that, as Valentine puts it, offers equal parts “moxie and elegance.”
It's a memorable, decadent meal, but somewhere between the fourth course and dessert, I realize something's missing. While the local JBF servers did a commendable job, it's tough to out-service a Cameron Mitchell team. It's one of the company's hallmarks—this talent for anticipating every need—and I feel a bit nostalgic for it when my glass of Chimney Rock runs dry.
While chef Schott's dessert course is served with Manhattans, JBF's Wojcik introduces the chefs and commends them. When it's Hinshaw's turn to speak, the emotion in his voice is obvious and touching. “There was a special bond in that kitchen tonight,” he says.
For Hinshaw's longtime boss, Cameron Mitchell, the dinner is like coming full circle. He stands to toast the room and share a story he'd told me downstairs just before dinner kicked off.
Thirty-two years ago, Mitchell says, he was attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and he made the 80-mile drive to Manhattan every weekend to work.
“I didn't have a dime to my name but wanted to get some New York experience,” he explains. “One time I remember, quite vividly, coming out of work on a Sunday afternoon after a long brunch shift at the Grand Hyatt. I had an old beat-up BMW with a stick shift, and I got out to start my car and it wouldn't start.”
The future restaurateur says he got out and pushed the car down 42nd Street, took a turn onto Lexington Avenue, picked up some speed, jumped into the car and popped the clutch. He drove back to the institute with what he estimates was $6 in his pocket and a gas card.
“To be here 32 years later is pretty exciting,” Mitchell says, with Beard's portrait staring down at him. “Tonight is about taking time to smell the roses.”