The Chef's Odyssey: NYC's James Beard House
Musicians and Carnegie Hall, actors and Broadway, athletes and Madison Square Garden: Every creative industry has its own New York Dream, a venue that serves as inspiration, aspiration, and, for those lucky enough to perform there, confirmation of one’s talents.
The restaurant industry’s equivalent is the James Beard House, an unassuming brick townhouse in Manhattan’s West Village where chefs from around the country are invited to cook multi-course dinners for dozens of guests in the former abode of modern-American cookery’s ebullient godfather, the late food writer and teacher James Beard. For many chefs, an invitation to cook at the Beard House is the next best thing to cooking at the White House—it’s a spot where local gastronomes, foodie tourists, and the national media gather to eat and meet the country’s next star chefs. Others liken it to a culinary one-night stand: Success can ripple into bigger and better opportunities, while failure will leave a bad impression in your woesome wake.
And tonight, on a chilly Friday evening in March, Minneapolis’s wunderkind restaurant, The Bachelor Farmer, is making its Big Apple debut.
Chef Paul Berglund led his crew from The Bachelor Farmer to the restaurant world's New York Dream: the former home of American culinary godfather James Beard. The meal they served included broth-poached chicken with assorted pickles, and beets with cured foie gras and dried fruit.
Preparations for the dinner began more than a year ago, when the James Beard Foundation invited TBF to cook at the House a few months after handing the restaurant its first James Beard Award nomination in the “Best New Restaurant” category. By the time the restaurant and the Foundation—organizers of the dinners and awards—settled on a date, TBF had garnered its second nomination, this one for chef Paul Berglund as “Best Chef: Midwest,” a title previously captured by esteemed Twin Cities chefs Tim McKee, Alexander Roberts, and Isaac Becker.
If the nomination is making Berglund feel any extra pressure tonight, he’s channeling the nervous energy into extra-judicious preparation. He’s brought two cooks, his chef de cuisine, and Nathan Rostance, TBF’s managing director, with him to New York, as well as the restaurant’s owners, Eric and Andrew Dayton. The team arrived Wednesday night with four 13-gallon coolers full of ingredients and pre-prepped food, then spent Thursday canvassing the city for any outstanding provisions, including a specific brand of salt (harder to find in NYC than anticipated), kitchen aprons (left behind in Minneapolis, oops), and a small pile of bricks for weighing down roasted carrots (procured outside a Brooklyn butcher shop by the chef de cuisine).
Long before the beef tartare with cashew milk, horseradish, popped amaranth, and watercress hit the tables, The Bachelor Farmer crew had much preparation to do. Pork shoulder was roasted in the cramped Beard House kitchen while the restaurant's managing director, Nathan Rostance, headed to Chelsea Market to pick up a few more ingredients.
This morning, they assembled in the Beard House’s notoriously cramped and quirky kitchen. The ceiling is dangerously low, with towels taped wherever the threat of a concussion looms, and the shelves are stocked with a graveyard of gear left behind by visiting cooks. A lack of counter space has already resulted in the creation of a makeshift pastry station on a folding table. Despite all of this, Berglund is pleasantly surprised. “I was picturing something smaller, actually. I thought we’d be cooking in a closet.”
As Rostance and Eric Dayton finalize the seating chart—Eric purchased several seats for friends and relatives, including his mother, who flew in from Minneapolis—Berglund runs through his crew’s detailed checklist of tasks and responsibilities required to produce a five-course menu (plus a trio of passed appetizers) that, in his words, “will convey where The Bachelor Farmer’s food is now.”
The menu is anchored with some of the restaurant’s signature techniques. A duo of beets—some roasted with duck fat, others braised with maple syrup, then dehydrated into rose petals—will be gilded with salt-cured foie gras. “We’ve developed a reputation for beets,” Berglund says. “We like to stretch the beet as far as it can go.”
Berglund selected some dishes to show appreciation for the restaurant’s influences. The vegetables under a brick, for example, came from his chef de cuisine, who picked up the technique cooking at New York’s Blue Hill restaurants. The compressed and intensely succulent carrots and sunchokes will accompany pork shoulder—lightly smoked in Minneapolis and slowly roasted throughout the afternoon in the Beard House kitchen until it surrenders itself to tenderness—inspired by Berglund’s time at Oakland’s Oliveto restaurant. The only regret Berglund has about tonight’s menu is forgoing his beloved Parker House rolls. “I always make them for the holidays back home, using James Beard’s recipe,” he says. “How cool would it have been to make James Beard’s rolls in the James Beard House?”
After the major preparations are finished, Berglund gathers his cooks to review the minute-by-minute battle plan. Despite their best efforts, many guest chefs cooking at the Beard House struggle to produce dishes as quickly as they’d like; it’s not unusual to finish a 7 p.m. meal here near midnight. But Berglund is determined to keep a steady pace. “When the last beets go out, we have exactly 12 minutes to get the beef tartare out,” he says. Berglund looks to the kitchen clock, then does some math on his clipboard. “We should have about 17 minutes between courses,” he says. “You guys are machines; you can do this.”
The Foundation’s in-house kitchen intern shakes her head. “Four courses in an hour?” she says, skeptical. “He served in the Navy,” a TBF cook whispers. Berglund smiles. “Now let’s make this kitchen presentable; it’ll be full of people in an hour.”
At 7 p.m., guests begin to arrive as Berglund’s team assembles the beet course on plates covering every inch of available surface. In the adjacent atrium, appetizers are passed and sparkling wine is poured. But, as with most dinner parties, guests circulate through the kitchen until they’re seated upstairs.
The Bachelor Farmer chef Paul Berglund speaks with his dinner guests, who spent the evening mingling in the Beard House atrium and enjoying a multi-course meal that finished with an unusual dessert: brown-butter cake with lemon curd and parsley ice cream.
Portions of the second floor of the house are remarkably preserved in the state that Beard left it when he passed away in 1985. A completely mirrored (and trippy) bathroom has survived, as have the remnants of an outdoor shower (legend has it that Beard’s bathing may have shocked a few neighbors). The large tables and mix of friends, family, and complete strangers can give a Beard dinner the semblance of a wedding reception. “I didn’t realize how much it would feel like an actual home,” Eric remarks.
By 10 p.m., the dessert course—brown-butter cake with lemon curd and parsley ice cream—has vanished, allowing Berglund and his team the chance to come upstairs for a hearty round of applause indicative of the meal’s resounding success. “It was definitely worth all of the planning,” Berglund says.
After the last guests have departed, TBF’s crew heads to The Spotted Pig gastropub to celebrate. Tomorrow, the Daytons will get up early to sell wares from their store, Askov Finlayson, at a GQ magazine–sponsored pop-up in Brooklyn. Berglund and his wife will depart for a well-earned vacation in Mexico, with some time to reflect on the experience of representing his slice of America’s diverse culinary scene. “So many chefs have cooked here before—and so many more will leave their mark after us,” he muses. “It was really meaningful to just be in the kitchen and to become part of this house’s legacy, even if it’s a very small part.”
Foodie Pilgrimages: Eats Worth the Trip
Web extra: See more behind-the-scenes photos from The Bachelor Farmer's dinner.