By the time his team starts ribbing chef Chris Mills about being voted one of TV Week ’s 10 most beautiful British Columbians, I feel like I’m part of the family and join in. (The executive chef of the Joey Restaurant Group is awfully cute, but even more so when embarrassed.) I’ve been with the gang for a couple of days now, eating (and drinking) up a storm all over New York City . We’re on this road trip because Mills has been invited – for the second time, no less – to cook at the James Beard House.
The house, located on West 12th Street, is where the noted chef/author/namesake of today’s most famous food awards lived, and where the foundation named after him now hosts over 200 guest-chef dinners a year. These events, which serve to raise funds for the foundation’s activities, are juried by a volunteer committee and the foundation’s director of house programming, Izabela Wojcik. She so enjoyed Mills’ visit in 2007 that he’d been on her mental list for a reprise ever since. “We love to see how a chef develops,” she says.
Beard’s is a narrow but glamorous four-storey home whose double-height, glassed-in parlour and all-over mirrored bathroom are conversation pieces in and of themselves. That is, they would be if we could hear each other speak; by the time I arrive at 6, the party full of 80-odd foundation members and food enthusiasts (anyone can attend, so long as they’re willing to pay anywhere between $150 and $250 to get in) is alive with chatter, the clinking of glasses and the frantic chopping, sautéing and prepping of foodstuffs.
Though small and homey, the kitchen is the centrepiece for these dinners; guests must pass through it to access the common spaces, in keeping with Beard’s philosophy that cooking should be an open and welcoming process. The father of America’s contemporary food scene helped establish his country’s culinary identity as a tireless educator; in addition to travelling non-stop from coast to coast, he founded a cooking school in 1955. While the James Beard House usually provides its own serving staff, the Joey Restaurant Group – the latest branch of which opened at the Toronto Eaton Centre in July – broke the rules and staged a chain-wide contest to pick the 16 best and brightest, both in the kitchen and in front-of-house, to accompany the chef on this big night. (Talk about an educational experience.)
After a few rounds of bouchées, like meltingly tender Pacific tuna sashimi and miniature peaches-and-cream chicken corndogs, I settle into my seat next to Mills’ dad and stepmom (told you I was part of the family) in the guacamole-hued second-floor dining room. Mills had shown his competitive side before on the original Japanese Iron Chef , but for this meal he’s personally invested: He has brought “gatherings from the Pacific Rim” to New York, which means mushrooms he’s picked from a secret spot in a thick B.C. forest and fish he’s reeled in himself.
The meal is a grandiose experience, involving a licorice-lacquered duck with summer-cherry conserve that will never leave my mind. But the only thing tastier than dinner’s grand finale – a bouncy banana cake with zingy passion fruit and banana salsa with toasted coconut ice cream – is the childhood story Mills’ dad is whispering in my ear.
James Beard House 167 W. 12th St., New York, 212-675-4984,
Joey Restaurant Group
Various locations across Canada and in Washington state, joeyrestaurants.com
Originally published in enRoute magazine .