It was a dress rehearsal of sorts, but the star of the show, Grand America chef Jeffrey Russell, seemed cool and collected on the evening of May 19. He calmly chatted with guests at a reception in the hotel's Oak Room before going back to the kitchen to oversee their five-course meal.
This is the same meal that, on June 10, he will prepare at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City. About 75 diners with discriminating palates will pay around $125 each to enjoy Russell's dishes, including seared Kobe-style beef, a salad of peekytoe crab, and a goat cheese tartlet.
To a chef, an invitation to cook at the James Beard House is an honor akin to a singer getting to perform with the Metropolitan Opera. Cookbook author James Beard is widely recognized as the father of American gastronomy. After he died in 1985, Julia Child and other friends formed a nonprofit group to buy his New York City house and preserve it as the foodie gathering spot it was during his life.
Today, the James Beard Foundation promotes the culinary world through dining events, scholarships and annual awards.
Foundation members regularly select distinguished chefs from around the country to present a dinner at the James Beard House. Only a handful of Utah chefs have been honored in the past.
This is Russell's fourth invitation, so perhaps that explains the lack of stage fright during the "dress rehearsal" at the Grand America.
"We wanted to see what will work and what won't," Russell said. "I have a game plan on how this whole dinner is going to go. We were happy with the food, although we did make some minimal changes. The biggest challenge is making sure all our products arrive."
Some of the sauces and fillings will be made in the Grand America's kitchens, then vacuumed-sealed and shipped in ice-filled coolers. "The beef will be directly shipped from the supplier, the seafood we'll get the day before," he added.
If something doesn't show up, his backup plan is the specialty food mega-market Balducci's. "If we needed to, we could pull off a dinner with a credit card," he said.
Russell already knows the Beard kitchen is cramped and small. "But I've worked in small kitchens before, and it's all about being organized."
He'll be bringing pastry chef Kurtis Baguley and banquet chef Eric Finney with him. Baguley created the dessert of lemon olive oil cake, with lemon sorbet and handmade bonbons.
When Russell made up the menu, "I was thinking 'Utah' and early summer. I wanted to represent something we would actually do here. And, we are the Grand America, so we're using the finest (ingredients) we can possible get our hands on."
Some ingredients, such as heirloom tomatoes and goat cheese, are Utah products. He decided to include scallops, lobster and peekytoe crab "because at the beginning of June, seafood is at its peak quality," he said. "And, you get to be more creative with seafood."
For instance, there's the salad of peekytoe crab, served in a large bowl. During dinner at the Grand America, the server poured clear "tomato water" over it, turning it into more of a soup. To make the tomato water, heirloom tomatoes are first chopped, then salted and pureed and wrapped in a huge cheesecloth bag that hangs overnight until all the clear liquid seeps out.
"The extracted liquid is rich and clean. I've done it before with cucumbers, too," Russell said. "I've decided to put it at the beginning of the menu because it's an exciting way to kick off the night."
The main entree is a duet of Kobe-style beef — as a seared medallion and as a short rib filling for cannelloni. Known for its flavor and tenderness, Kobe beef originated in Japan with the Wagyu breed of cattle. They are massaged and fed sake wine to improve the meat's quality. Russell's Australia supplier raises the Wagyu cattle in the same manner.
Most of the ingredients, as well as the wine that complements each course, is being donated by food suppliers. Even so, the trip is still costing the Grand America around $10,000, he said.
For years, restaurants and chefs have deemed it an honor to donate their food and cooking skills to the James Beard House, with the idea that the money raised would go to culinary education. So it was a major credibility blow in 2004 when the president, Len F. Pickell Jr., was accused of stealing more than $1 million from the group. Auditors found that in 2003, only $29,000 of the nearly $4.5 million in the general fund had gone directly to culinary scholarships.
Pickell admitted to writing foundation checks for personal debts, taking petty cash and claiming fraudulent reimbursements, and last year he was sentenced to one to three years in prison.
"I was mostly disappointed, because we had done dinners there within that year, and the money from our hard work wasn't going where it was supposed to," said Russell, who is a foundation member.
But, he said, board members quickly stepped in to restructure its accounting processes, and the group is now more open with its financial statements. (The statements are posted on the group's Web site at www.jamesbeard.org). In April 2006, the board appointed former Family Circle magazine publisher Susan Ungaro as president.
Despite the scandal, Russell expressed belief in the group's purpose of promoting the culinary world, and dreams of someday winning one of the annual chef awards.
"One of the major things for chefs is to be recognized by their peers," he said. "It's easy to impress people who eat out once a month, but those who cook day in and day out are the ones who really know."
A native of Massachusetts, Russell has been at the Grand America since August. His first James Beard invitation came when he was at the Ventana Canyon Resort in Tucson, Ariz. He's also worked at Desert Sage Restaurant in Palm Springs, Calif., the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires. Russell has worked with well-known chefs Bobby Flay, Alice Waters, Daniel Boulud and Ming Sai.
Russell said he likes to check out other restaurants' menus on the Internet and in person. He plans to visit some places while he's in New York. "But," he added, "I try to be a trend-setter, not a trend follower."
The five-course menu
Salad of Peekytoe Crab: shaved fennel, cilantro, heirloom tomato water, micro celery
Tartlet of Utah Goat Cheese and Grilled Artichokes: roasted eggplant puree, "old" balsamic vinegar, unfiltered olive oil
Pan Seared Herb Crusted Dry Sea Scallops: lobster-chanterelle risotto, sweet pea sauce
Duet of Kobe Beef: seared medallion and short rib cannelloni, Stilton mashed potatoes, cabernet reduction
Meyer Lemon Olive Oil Cake with Citrus Broth and Meyer Lemon Sorbet, handmade pralines and bonbons
TARTLET OF UTAH GOAT CHEESE AND GRILLED ARTICHOKES
Note: Chef Jeffrey Russell said this tartlet can be made using ready-made pie dough
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
8 ounces (1 cup) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1/3 cup ice water
3 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs (an equal mixture of tarragon, thyme, Italian parsley and chives)
8 grilled artichoke hearts
2 tablespoons chopped herbs (an equal mixture of tarragon, thyme, Italian parsley and chives)
6 oven-dried roma tomatoes
12 kalamata olives, quartered
1 3 1/2-ounce log goat cheese
1 ounce aged balsamic vinegar
2 ounces extra-virgin olive oil
For dough: Chop butter into 1/2-inch chunks and freeze. Combine the flour, sugar and salt. When butter is very cold, toss it together with the dry ingredients. Dump it into a food processor and pulse a few times to bring the butter to the size of small peas (or work butter into the dry ingredients by hand with a pastry blender or fork). Dump the mixture back into a bowl and add chopped herbs. Sprinkle in the water, tossing the mixture with your hands and knead a couple of times until the dough comes together. Don't over-knead!
Cover the dough in plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour. When chilled, roll out the dough to a little less than 1/8 inch. Line your favorite tart pan with the dough and trim off the excess Prick the dough several times with a fork and freeze. When frozen, line the dough with parchment paper and fill it with pie weights or beans. Bake in a pre-heated 375-degree oven until deep golden brown. Allow to cool before removing the weights.
For eggplant puree: Cut both eggplants in half. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Bake in a 350-degree oven until dark golden brown. Let cool; scoop out pulp and puree it until smooth.
To assemble: Cover bottom of tart shell with eggplant puree. Arrange rest of ingredients on tart in a decorative manner. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes or until warm. Drizzle with vinegar and olive oil. Top with micro-greens or baby spring greens, if desired.
— Grand America Chef Jeffrey Russell