More than 500 pounds. That's how much three coolers Chef David Gutowski carefully packed to the brim weighed. Tucked inside were ducks from Dotsero, cured striped bass raised in Alamosa, Colorado lamb ribeyes, wild mushrooms hand-picked on Vail Pass, pork belly from Denver, fresh vegetables grown in Boulder, and that's just the beginning of the lengthy list. It was enough food to prepare a six-course meal for 96 guests at the famed James Beard House, a brownstone in New York City. But first those coolers needed to be hauled nearly 2,000 miles across the country, from Grouse Mountain Grill's walk-in refrigerator in Beaver Creek to the James Beard House at 167 West 12th Street in New York City. That was one trek that Gutowski, the executive chef at Grouse Mountain Grill, will never forget.
Getting the invitation to cook a meal at the foodie mecca is a culinary coup in itself. It's also an expensive endeavor, but one that the restaurant's owners, Nancy and David Dowell, were willing to undertake.
"They've been super supportive since day one," Gutowski said.
The dinner took place nearly six weeks ago, and enough time has passed that Gutowski can look back and clearly see that the theme he chose, "Last Farmer's Market in Colorado," made pulling off the dinner exceptionally challenging. If the theme were New Jersey's or even Maine's last farmers market dinner, it would have been easier, at least as far as transport goes.
"I made it hard on myself with the theme," he said.
Just like with any tough night in the kitchen, in the end, of course, Gutowski and his team - Executive Sous Chef Brian Rotunno and Pastry Chef Allison Helfer - pulled it off in a way that made it look effortless.
But it wasn't. Not even close.
Pretty much every ingredient for the dinner, which took place Sept. 27, had to be brought to New York City from Colorado. That's where those three enormous coolers of food, weighing in at 175 pounds each, came into play. But even getting the food to pack in those coolers was a challenge.
The day before his flight to New York, Gutowski drove to Boulder to pick up the vegetables for the meal, something the farmer insisted on so they'd be as fresh as possible. Gutowski was also busy getting milk from the restaurant's goat, Nico, with which to make goat's milk ice cream to serve with Helfer's Palisade peach panna cotta. Yes, you read that right. Grouse Mountain Grill owns a goat named Nico who lives on a farm outside of Denver. "Frasca in Boulder owns one of the goats there, too," Gutowski said.
And there were the mushrooms, an obviously crucial ingredient for the "locally foraged porcini mushroom soup with garlic chips and chives," one of the passed appetizers on the menu. Except by the time Gutowski got to Wolfgang Uberbacher, a forager who local chefs know as "Wolf the mushroom man," Wolf was wiped out.
"He had nothing left," Gutowski said. "My friend who owns Bol, Barry, had just bought him out. But Barry was kind enough to sell me some at cost and help us out there."
That wasn't the only time that local chefs helped Gutowski out for this specific meal. Generally chefs are very private about their purveyors. The best ingredients makes the best food, and so chefs are extremely protective of that sort of proprietary information. But even so, Kelly Liken happily put Gutowski in touch with a man in Dotsero who raises ducks, to be used in the dinner's fourth course: Seared Story Farms duck breast with Munson Farms cinderella pumpkin agnolotti, duck cracklings, and duck and foie gras sausage.
As it turns out, on the night of the dinner it was the duck that really got people's attention.
Once the coolers were packed, Gutowski made a few calls to make sure everything moving forward would go smoothly. He called the airlines to make sure they'd allow him to check the giant coolers. A representative assured them they could. He called the hotel in New York, to make sure the coolers could be stored in a fridge once they arrived. No problem, they said. Then he called the James Beard House to tell them his team would arrive on Tuesday, two days before the dinner, in order to begin preparing. Sounds good, they told him.
Packed and ready to fly, the group headed to the airport on a Monday, a full three days before the dinner was scheduled to take place.
The first hurdle took place at the airport check-in counter.
"Of course, the airline was like 'We can't take these,'" Gutowski said.
After a lengthy discussion, the airline acquiesced, made a special exemption, and agreed to let him check the coolers.
Once in New York City, the group maneuvered all of the luggage into two cabs and set out for the hotel, where the bellboy told them there wasn't room in fridge after all, not for containers that size.
So Gutowski picked up his cell phone to call the Beard House, who told him they weren't expecting his supplies or his crew until Thursday.
"In my head, but I was trying to be calm in front of everyone else," Gutowski said. "Inside, it was breaking my spirit. Inside, I was dying, but I was joking around with bellman and rolling with punches on the outside."
Once in the rooms, the chefs opened the coolers and while some things had been broken or ruined when searched at the airport, the frozen stuff was still frozen - "Thank God," Gutowski said - so they turned the air conditioning as low as it would go in the room, and piled garbage bags full of ice in and around the coolers. Then the group headed out into the city.
That's when things finally started to go right.
While they were at dinner, "the Beard house called, and said 'sorry for the mix up,'" Gutowski said. And the next day, Gutowski's cousin, who owns a restaurant in New York, used his pickup to take the coolers to the James Beard House.
The dinner itself, a six-course affair that began with duck confit with Palisade tomato jam, lamb ribs with cilantro and chimichurri and the creamy mushrooms soup and ended with that Palisade peach panna cotta, went off without so much as a burned beignet.
"The trip itself is the perfect analogy: Just like in the restaurant, there are days where we're doomed, but it always gets done, it always does," Gutowski said.
You just have to have faith. And a big cooler.