In America, there are few words one can pair with the name of a chef that garner more respect than James Beard. Whether a chef is a “James Beard Award Winner,” “nominee” or cooked at the James Beard House, it is a credential that instantly tells you that a chef is not just admired and respected in his or her hometown but has received recognition on a national level.
The New York-based James Beard Foundation has been honoring chefs, wine professionals, journalists and cookbook authors since 1986. Beyond the awards, the organization also turned the legendary food writer’s old brownstone home into the James Beard House, a gathering place for special dinners organized by great chefs from all over the country.
So when Asheville’s highly decorated Chef William Dissen was tapped to organize a dinner for the leaders of the Beard Foundation, it wasn’t just North Carolinians taking notice of his work this time. Dissen, a West Virginia native and Culinary Institute of America grad who took over The Market Place restaurant from its founder, Mark Rosenstein, has a healthy fixation with Appalachian cuisine. Utilizing a strict farm-to-table approach and a rich supply of locally sourced goods, his meals are composed almost entirely of ingredients from within 100 miles of the restaurant. We took some time to sit down with Chef Dissen and find out how the dinner, which took place Oct. 20, went.
Mountain Xpress: So, how was the Beard House?
William Dissen: I’m still playing catch-up. It was a lot of fun. The Beard House, for chefs, is very hallowed ground. There have been some really amazing people who have cooked there. So to have an opportunity to cook there as well … I was very humbled by the experience. Even just to reflect upon the people who have cooked there is really cool. And to be asked to organize a dinner with some of these chefs … they’re James Beard Award winners and television chefs.
What was the occasion for the dinner?
A lot of these dinners are open for the public, but this one was actually a private event as a precursor to the James Beard Food Conference. So you had all of the funders for the foundation, as well as the executives and upper echelon from the organization. So I had the opportunity to cook for the president and vice president of the foundation.
So that’s a pretty big deal.
Yeah, it’s James Beard! As I was a young, up-and-coming culinarian reading about him … he was kind of like the father of American food writing. He really helped bring America back out of the dark ages of cooking and show Europe and the rest of the world that we are not a bunch of dumb Americans — we’re actually doing real food here.
Yeah, that’s really important because we Americans have such an embarrassing trend of creating great regional cuisines and then putting them in a can or a microwave or boil-in-bag package.
And it is pretty cool in our country that despite polluting ourselves for so many decades, now I think our generation is coming out of the haze and fog and saying, “We want real food again. We don’t want this processed junk, we want real food, and we want it to taste pretty damned good.” And I think it’s really neat that there is this renaissance going on in our country about great food, and the masses are starting to grab hold of that concept too, from quick-service to fine dining.
So how is your experience in New York affecting what you do moving forward in your kitchen?
Anytime you travel as a chef and get the chance to collaborate with great chefs, it is always a learning experience. A little bit of research and development. It opens your eyes up to different formats, variables, philosophies about how you cook. Which allows you to be more creative and successful every day. But there’s no need for any big changes after this. I think we’re going to stick to our guns.
The menu spanned several courses of hors d’oeuvres before easing into three courses and dessert. Clams, lamb-belly broth, lemongrass tapioca, with sea-urchin tahini, followed by crispy sweetbreads, Western Carolina barbecue sauce, turnips, celery salad and blue-cheese dressing. If that wasn’t enough, Malabar Coast-spiced Skuna Bay salmon, Hudson Valley duck biryani, Lucky's tomato raita and charred okra preceded a dessert of warm apple charlotte, crème fraîche chantilly and caramel sauce.
Dissen’s team for the dinner included Top Chef favorite Sam Talbot, Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill, N.C., Emily Luchetti of Waterbar and Farallon in San Francisco, Ben Hall of Russell St. Deli in Detroit, Evan Hanczor of Parish Hall and Egg in New York City, and Hari Pulapaka of Cress Restaurant in DeLand, Fla.