(Banner photo © Ted Axelrod 2012)
What do you get when you combine Executive Chefs Charles Phillips of Nashville’s 1808 Grille with Hus Vedat of London’s Caxton Grill in America’s most distinguished kitchen, at the legendary James Beard House in Greenwich Village?
You get five courses of the freshest, most flavorful elements of New American and European cuisine. And you get me in the company of new friends, astonished that I get to enjoy this exclusive dinner in the brownstone that was home to a pioneer of American gastronomy. So let me tell you all about it.
As I entered the small plating area of the kitchen I thought “talk about too many cooks in the kitchen!” Yet, it was immediately obvious that each chef’s respective team worked seamlessly together. At a side station they filled English pea shooters with chantilly while on the main station they were plating our appetizer of beet textures with fried goat cheese.
On my way to the garden for hors d’oeuvres of gougères and mofongo with aioli, the first person I met was Chef Phillips. Having lived in Nashville myself, we had an immediate connection. We began talking about his restaurant in the Hutton Hotel on West End Avenue. He could not say enough about how warmly the Nashville community embraced his arrival. As approachable as Chef Phillips is, it is easy to see why—and after tasting his food it is even easier. But I had yet to meet Chef Vedat. I thought sure I would recognize him from his photograph. But where was he?
After a pass through the garden, I met my fellow food enthusiasts at our table in the Library Room upstairs. Fish is a favorite of mine so the escolar with nuoc cham dipping sauce got my attention right away. The sauce had a near perfect mixture of sweetness with chili and garlic. Add the sweet potato velvet, micro bok choy, with the earthy coriander blossom, and wine pairing of d’Arenberg The Hermit Crab Viognier–Marsanne 2010 and this was almost my favorite of the night.
The salad showed the chef’s attention to detail in making the garden come alive: a slice of white asparagus, radish and sprig of baby lettuce made the perfect filler for the bresaola.
But I had not yet met Chef Vedat. Between courses, I made a quick sweep but still no sight of him.
My favorite course of the night—of course—was the stuffed quail and porchetta with trumpet mushroom and sweet onion.
My grandmother way down south makes the best cornbread stuffing—we call it dressing. In my book, she is the exclusive of exclusive chefs—you have to know someone to get an invite to her table—so it is saying a lot for me give the Merguez cornbread stuffing a rating almost as good as grandma’s.
And the porchetta! I do not know a lot about Italian pig roasts but I have plenty of experience with Mississippi Delta pig roasts. No disrespect to Italian traditionalists but I am firmly persuaded that slow roasted pork belly wrapped around an inner tube would taste good!
Now now, let me straighten up and finish with the elegance the evening deserves. Before the peanut butter soup with ancho spiced croutons and shortbread grissini arrived, I hurried downstairs for one more search of the London chef. I asked someone passing by if he had seen Chef Vedat. To my surprise, with a most humble, endearing reply he said, “Yes, that is me.” I had walked past him several times but did not recognize him from his photo. In his most humble manner, he kindly put me at ease in what could have been an embarrassing moment.
Now, all night I had been thinking what is the metaphor that shows the common desire and approach of these two chefs? For the simple reason that Chef Phillips is in Music City and Chef Vedat is in London, music kept coming to mind. Then as I listened to Chef Vedat describe their common desires to get away from overproduction, back to the earthy elements of fresh farmed food, preparation with attention to each ingredient’s individuality, and the desire to strike a common chord for all around one table, I could not resist asking Chef Vedat, “What do you think of Adele’s music?”
He replied, “I love her. She is doing with music what I am trying to do with food–that is, get back to what is real and what is good.”
With that I was sure I had my analogy, but it got bigger. It does not matter if you are from Nashville or London, the north, south, east or west; whether you sit on this or that side of the table, or are a food purist or just love music. In these homogenized times we realize we have left something along the way that we want to get back.
We want the farmer who has his hands in the dirt to be valued again; we want to meet those in the kitchen who have spent days to bring us an hour of happiness.
We want music to complement the words and words the music and for each to have the heart of the other; we want local color complete with local accents and differences that make us unique; we want the table where we slow down together no matter how fast the day; simply put, we want to taste and feel again.
I thank Chef Phillips and Chef Vedat because that is what they served me through the dishes they prepared.