Behind-the-Scenes at a James Beard House Dinner
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New York City, New York

Behind-the-Scenes at a James Beard House Dinner

With Chef Michael Fiorelli of Manhattan Beach's Love & Salt

Editor’s Note: In our Letters from the Industry series, we invite culinary professionals to share thoughts regarding topics on their minds and close to their hearts. In today’s entry, Chef Michael Fiorelli of Manhattan Beach, California’s Love & Salt, invites us to observe the details that go into planning a featured meal at Manhattan’s renowned James Beard House.

5 months before

Everyone has an opinion.

“No one wants to go out on a Monday.” “Sundays are for family.” “You definitely don’t want to do a Wednesday––that’s two days after Monday!” It’s barely even May, but we are already late in making our decision on the date for one of the most important meals we’ll serve this year: A dinner at the James Beard House in New York City. I don’t even know what I’m doing next week, but apparently we should have picked a date two months ago.

“Thursday?” Someone proposes.

“It’s certainly better than Friday…”

“Thursday.”

And so it is. Thursday, October 22nd.

4 1/2 months before

The menu is due. Overdue. One would think this is the easiest part of the process for a chef. Maybe it should be, but I’m currently surrounded by late spring/early summer harvest and thinking about what I can do with first-of-the-season tomatoes and peaches at Love & Salt in the next few weeks.

None of this is relevant for a dinner in October.

Carrots? Porcinis? Delicata squash? I try to think about what is going to be inspiring me four months from now. Part of me wants to execute a completely unique menu––things I haven’t done before at the restaurant. My brain is full of new ideas. I’m writing notes. Getting excited. And then it hits me, and the reality cloud quickly begins to rain on my ego parade. I’m going to be preparing this food in a foreign kitchen 3,500 miles away from Manhattan Beach, with one––maybe two––of my normally 15-person kitchen team. Based on my last experience at the James Beard House five years ago, I know that if nothing else, I need to set myself up for success with a pitch I know. No curve balls when I don’t have the home field advantage.

After discussing with the team at Love & Salt––owners, Guy and Sylvie Gabriele, my Chef de Cuisine/Pastry Chef, Rebecca Merhej, and our General Manager, Stephan le Garrec––we decide to create a menu spotlighting our “greatest hits” from the past few months. We’re going to bring a taste of Manhattan Beach to Manhattan.

4 months before

The wine pairings are due. Overdue. As important as the food is, the wine is what brings everything together. This is where Guy and our sommelier Christian Barion excel. Rather than selecting wines from a local importer in New York (the easier route), Guy wants to pour wines he’s already familiar with, wines he’s tasted with the food, and wines that he knows will pair well with each course. We decide to source from five different purveyors who will all need to ship for arrival on the same day. If they arrive too soon, they’ll be turned away because there’s no place to store them at the House. If they arrive too late, we’ll be serving New York City’s finest water.

3 Weeks Before the Dinner

“We’re sorry to inform you…” reads the first line of the email. The James Beard House’s off-site banquet kitchen, where we’ve been planning to finish prep, is going to be too busy in the days leading up to our dinner for us to work there. We won’t be able to get into the House’s kitchen until 8 o’clock the morning of the dinner, which means we need to come up with a Plan B. Fast.

Enter, “Charlie’s Angels”––Ryan Hardy and his team of chefs at Charlie Bird on King Street in Manhattan. Ryan is a friend of mine; we used to do the Aspen Food & Wine festival together, and I immediately call him up to explain our dilemma. He not only agrees to open up his kitchen to us, but says he’ll also help us source product. It’s another reminder of how a dinner like this goes far deeper than the chef whose name appears on the event listing. There are so many nameless faces that are working hard or lending support behind the scenes––including the staff at Love & Salt who will be pulling double duty in Manhattan Beach to ensure everything still runs smoothly in our absence.

1 Week Before the Dinner

The reality is starting to sink in––it’s really happening. While the whole team has been busy for months, making plans for travel arrangements (something Sylvie spearheaded), discussing our timetable for the days leading up, what we want to prep in Los Angeles and what we can source and prep in New York, it’s getting down to the wire. We have one week to be ready. Oh, and we still have to run a restaurant business as usual. No big deal.

Week of the Dinner

Monday, October 19

9 a.m.

My flight leaves in just a few hours, and I’m packing a cooler at the restaurant. Twenty rabbit porchetta and rabbit jus, house-made cultured butter, whipped lardo, pickled vegetables––and that’s just a third of it. We’re bringing us much as we can with us to limit the amount we’ll need to prepare when we arrive. It’s been an intense week getting ready, but now there’s nothing more to do but get on the plane and hope the coolers make it to the other side. I’m as prepared as I’m going to be, and I’m feeling the first sense of calm since we picked the date five months ago. Time for a nap and an in-flight movie.

11 p.m.

Wheels down in New York. It feels great to be back home, where I grew up and first started my career. It’s one of those “full circle” moments. I enjoy the feeling for a second before my mind turns back to the cooler. The fate of the dinner more or less hangs on it (and the ones that Stephan and Rebecca will be bringing with them tomorrow).

12 a.m.

My cab pulls in front of Charlie Bird in SoHo. All I can think about is getting inside to check that everything I packed 12 hours ago is intact. It still feels cold and appears unharmed. I’m momentarily relieved––until I open it to find a notice that it has undergone a TSA bag check. Everything that was so carefully packed has been tossed around as if it’s gone through a tornado. Thankfully, nothing is harmed, and I neatly unpack everything onto sheet trays and place them in the tiny walk-in at the restaurant. On my way out to finally check in at my hotel, I sheepishly remind Tim, Ryan’s sous chef, that Stephan and Rebecca will be arriving the following evening with two more coolers.

Tuesday, October 20

10 a.m.

After a restless night’s sleep, I’m back at Charlie Bird trying to stay as out of the way as possible. I emailed Ryan and his team a list of the product I would need, and they were kind enough to order 50 pounds of swordfish, 60 pieces of split marrow bones, three cases of baby carrots and a ton of pantry ingredients for us. It’s all there waiting for me, and the swordfish is gorgeous. I ask someone where it’s from. It turns out to be a company called Pierless Fish, owned by Bob Demasco, whom I grew up with in East Moriches. As much as I’ve grown to love California, New York is still home.

11:30 a.m.

I’m moving fast––fabricating fish, making English muffin dough, basically trying to get through as much grunt work as possible before the rest of the Love & Salt team arrives so we can minimize the amount of time we are, well––in the way.

2 p.m.

Instead of making the same cavatappi that I make every day at Love & Salt for the bone marrow pasta we’ll be serving, I’ve decided to collaborate on something new with Ryan and his Charlie Bird crew. One of the best things about spending time in someone else’s kitchen is that if you keep your eyes open, you might actually learn something.

So, as I’m standing there (you know, in the way), Tim starts telling me about this flour called grana arso. It’s from Puglia, and it’s actually burnt, so the color is deep gray and it smells just like toast. It’s like he’s reading my mind––the bone marrow pasta is meant to be a play on bone marrow toast, so now I have a flour that will essentially create burnt toast pasta. Now all that’s left to do is make the dough and hand-roll each piece of cavatelli for 80 people.

Oh, and stay out of the way.

9 p.m.

The Love & Salt team arrives at Charlie Bird, and we all sit down to have dinner. It’s great to be there together, enjoying a celebratory meal in the midst of all the hard work we’ve been putting in. We’ll be at it again early tomorrow morning, but we of course decide to make a couple pit stops before heading back to the hotel––including a late night meal at an Indian restaurant one of our taxi drivers recommended. It’s by far the dirtiest building I’ve ever eaten food in. Ah, New York.

Wednesday, October 21 (1 day before the dinner)

10 a.m.

Even with all the work that we’ve done in advance, there’s still a full day of prep in front of us, and for me, it will involve…cleaning carrots. When you’re working with beautiful, multicolored baby carrots, you don’t want to peel them; you want to keep the skin. Except, because they are straight out of the ground, the skin is dirty––you have to take each one individually and rub the dirt off with a damp kitchen towel. It’s meticulous and tedious, but necessary––particularly for the dish I’ll be serving which is really just three things on a plate: Roasted carrots, carrot top pesto and ricotta.

10:30 a.m.

I’m getting ready to spend the next two hours cleaning carrots, and I’m looking at the boxes the team at Charlie Bird had sourced for us. I’d been really adamant about wanting them to be perfect because these carrots are the star of this dish. They’d assured me that I was in New York City, the Big Apple, the restaurant capital of the world––I had nothing to worry about. And here are boxes of these perfect carrots that they have here in the restaurant capital of the world, and they are looking really familiar to me. I open one up and sure enough, these beautiful carrots are from a farm outside of Los Angeles.

Thursday, October 22nd (day of the dinner)

8 a.m.

Now that we have access to the kitchen at the James Beard House, we load the coolers back up with what we had prepped and stored at Charlie Bird and haul everything up the two flights of stairs to the Uber waiting in the alley. Now we have to hustle everything over to the House––to unload and carry it down another flight of stairs.

12 p.m.

We’re finally set up and organized at the kitchen and the final prep is underway. Less than seven hours before the first guests start arriving.

4 p.m.

It’s time to choose the china. We count everything, label it by course and then make sure the plates that need to be hot are in the oven. I look at my watch and start to get that anxious, “Where is the time going?” feeling.

5 p.m.

While the team at the House sets up the tables for the guests who will be arriving (and walking through the kitchen to access the patio for the cocktail hour), we meet with the maître d’ to discuss dietary needs and special service requests. This is when we discover that two attendees don’t eat pork, which would be just fine if the final savory dish of the night––the rabbit porchetta––wasn’t wrapped in prosciutto. Stephan is out the door before I even think to ask, and back in under 10 minutes with two beautiful organic chickens.

5:30 p.m.

We’re now broadcasting live from the kitchen, which means anyone who visits the James Beard website can watch us via video streaming until the end of the night. We’re a well-oiled machine at this juncture, but it could so easily have gone the other way if we hadn’t done so much prep in advance.

6 p.m.

The service staff lines up, and I start telling them about the restaurant––introducing them to the full team, talking through the menu, describing the dishes so they can in turn describe them to guests who have questions. At Love & Salt, our staff went through 2 weeks of  training and 3 nights of mock-runs before we opened our doors to serve the public. Tonight’s training takes all of ten minutes.

6:45 p.m.

Our 4-person kitchen team is still spreading lardo on toast and finishing the canapés for the cocktail hour, and there are already hungry guests arriving and walking through the kitchen. We smile, nod and just keep swimming.

7:20 p.m.

“How are we already out of bread?” I ask. We’re only 20 minutes into the cocktail hour, and somehow we’ve gone through eight loaves already. Stephan is out the door again, and back with bread from his new favorite market up the street in under 10 minutes.

7:45 p.m.

The maître d’ gives us a 15 minute heads-up to have the first course ready. We’ll have about 20 minutes of time between each course, which means 20 minutes to plate 80 dishes, clean the counter, set down 80 more plates and do it all over again. At this point, we’re in the trenches, and it’s pretty much non-stop until the last lemon meringue tart goes out.

9:45 p.m.

Service complete, we go upstairs to thank everyone for joining and answer a few questions about the meal. It’s hard to believe that with all the months of preparation, all the effort that Guy, Sylvie, Rebecca, Stephan, Christian and the team back at Love & Salt put into this meal, and it’s all over in less than 3 hours.

My mind is still racing, but this is the moment that makes it all worthwhile: Seeing how much everyone in the room enjoyed the food and wine that is so deeply personal to us. This is what we live and breathe everyday in Manhattan Beach, and to be able to share that experience at the most prestigious of venues for a chef is beyond an honor. It’s a reminder of why it is we do what we do. A reminder that a chef is only as good as the team that surrounds him. Both back at home, and in a kitchen 3,500 miles away from that home.

You can visit Chef Michael Fiorelli at Love & Salt in sunny California’s Manhattan Beach.

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