Monday night was the 2014 James Beard Foundation awards gala. This year, I had the opportunity to work with James Beard Award winner Stephanie Izard of Girl and the Goat and Little Goat, both in Chicago, one of the chefs who was serving food at the reception after the official awards part of the evening. I managed to get photos of some of the activity, as best I could when I wasn’t prepping food for serving. Here’s a worker bee’s eyes view of the evening.
The photo above was one I took as I left the awards ceremony, getting to my station so that I could be ready as the hungry guests exited the auditorium. No food or drink was served while the awards were being handed out. This means, lots of hungry folks were milling about while the chefs and their teams were putting together the plates of food, just waiting in anticipation of the feasting to come.
Midway through setting up, I was sent on an errand to locate more quart-sized containers so that we’d have extra vessels in which to keep the prepared ingredients. On my way back into the building, someone said, “Excuse me, miss. Can I take your photo?” Stunned, as I’m about the furthest thing from a well-known culinary celebrity, I replied, “Sure.” Then, I looked up to find it was one of my friends, Susannah Gold, a wine industry professional, who was waiting to go into the event. She took this great photo of me, having accomplished my task.
We were located on the ground floor, which meant that we were basically in the thick of the arrivals. It was terrific people-watching, in which we definitely indulged, as we held tight to our viewing spot behind our prep tables, all of our mise en place (ingredient setup) stashed away out of sight.
Just as with any other awards ceremony, we looked around to see who arrived and with whom, watching the hugs, air kisses, and backslapping and trying to spot our favorite chefs and to figure out just whom everyone was. Of course, we also did a bit of observation on the attire for the evening. Black suits for the men seemed de rigueur, with facial hair carefully groomed and tattoos tastefully kept out of sight, after all this is a black tie affair. Nominees had a black and yellow identifying pin so you could pick them out. Many of the ladies seemed to wear sparkly attire. A few furs were sported as well, although it did seem a bit warm of an evening for that. Who says that the culinary crowd can’t clean up and look nice?
After the guests filed into the auditorium, which took a bit of doing, we were given a break to go watch part of the ceremony itself. Trekking up to the nosebleed section, where there were some vacant spots, I managed to snag a seat to view the awards, sitting along with my other white-coated, black-clogged colleagues. This photo isn’t very good, but it sort of shows the arrangement: little stage + big screen. It was also kind of fun to take in the spectacle from this angle, as I could see the teleprompter and watch the presenters ad lib or just get lost in the words. As with any industry party, there were inside references, lots of thanks given to family, friends, mentors, and co-workers, and just a general sense of camaraderie.
After seeing only some of the ceremony, it was time to head back downstairs to get ready to feed everyone. Chef Izard along with her team from Chicago (Nicki and Chalmers), another volunteer (Jess), and I went to work to get our set up and organization figured out so that we could get the food out to the guests as efficiently as possible.
Turns out, we were also sharing our station with the champagne pouring guys. That was a nice bonus, especially as they ran out of it pretty early in the evening. Yes, they made sure to look after us as well. Even before the festivities got started a glass went flying off of the table, in the opposite direction of the food, fortunately.
Jess and I were designated “aioli-ers,” and given the task of putting dollops of the caper aioli on handmade crackers. The crackers had a warm toastiness to them and were sturdy enough to hold the aioli plus the other components of the dish. We completed the first couple of trays of them and held back until the start of service, so that the others wouldn’t get soggy.
Chef Izard prepared the first batch of the trout tartare mixture, which was also put together on an as-needed basis. We had to wait, however, for the official signal from the event organizers for when we could begin to give out the plates. Guests were starting to gather around, eagerly anticipating being able to actually taste the dishes, rather than just viewing all the preparation.
We set up an assembly line-style system for plating, trying to stay ahead of the hungry guests. One table held the crackers with aioli, which were then put onto plates with the trout mixture added next.
The last step was handing the plates to Chef Izard to add the final garnish and to pass them to the attendees. Even before we got the signal that we could start to serve, folks were huddled around waiting to get their hands on this dish.
We each had a sample nibble when we were prepping earlier, before the crowds arrived. The combination was hearty and light at the same time, with loads of flavor packed into each bite. I’m sure that we had more than a few repeat customers throughout the evening.
After several hours of non-stop serving, barely lifting my head up to move from one part of the station to the other, pulling sheet trays of crackers out of the proofing cabinet to put more aioli on them and then getting the crackers onto the plates, the crowd seemed to thin out just enough that Jess and I were told that the rest of the group could finish dishing up the remaining portions that we had. There were just a couple of trays of the crackers left to dress with the trout tartare, and we’d be completely cleaned out of food, except for a few cracker crumbs.
Many of the stations were all out of food by the time I had a chance to walk around, so I picked up a drink first and located a friend who was still there enjoying the evening. Thankfully, some of the tables still had plates left on them, like Beast. In accepting her award for Best Chef: Northwest, Naomi Pomeroy had mentioned that they had put together a Lobster Crepe for guests to enjoy.
I think she way undersold her dish. It was a lobster flavored work of art, capturing the sweetness and ocean beauty of the seafood. For me, too, the fact that the musical inspiration came from one of my favorite bands, the B-52s and their hit “Rock Lobster,” in keeping with the theme of the evening of songs and dishes inspired by them, made it all that more enjoyable.
Alas, every event has to have an end. As guests grabbed their coats and polished off the last of their drinks, wandering out into the springtime air of the city, another work crew descended upon the scene to take everything apart. Many of the stations were being broken down as I was exiting, boxes and sheet trays stacked everywhere. Time to say good-bye to the James Beard Foundation awards gala for another year.
For a complete list of this year’s winners for the James Beard Foundation Awards, please visit their website.