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Beaver Creek meets New York

Wren Wertin
wren@vaildaily.com
Vail, CO Colorado
Photo courtesy of Stephanie Eichman | stephanie.eiExecutive chef Pascal Coudouy, right, plates the first round of appetizers during 8100 Mountainside Bar and Grill's special dinner at the James Beard House in New York City last Wednesday. Guests enter the house through the kitchen and pass directly along the counter where Coudouy is working.
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NEW YORK – It was the sort of dinner that was cooked twice: first, a flurry of exacting prep work in Beaver Creek and, later, exhibition-style cooking under the watchful eyes of arriving dinner guests in New York City. But that’s part of the process when chefs are invited so far from their home kitchen to host a five-course dinner for East Coast foodies and media types. Pascal Coudouy and Reese Hay of the Park Hyatt’s 8100 Mountainside Bar and Grill created their Beaver Creek Luxe menu for attendees of the James Beard House in Manhattan last Wednesday. As promised, it was an exercise in luxurious, alpine cuisine – and then some.

“What I liked most about the event as a whole was the commitment on the part of the chefs to showcase so many Colorado farms, artisanal producers and winemakers,” said Victoria Jordan, assistant to the director of House programming. “There was hardly a single component of any dish that wasn’t ‘home grown’ and made by someone that the chefs seemed to know personally. It really allows a different audience to experience all of the local flavors that guests of 8100 Mountainside get to enjoy, and it was very clear that Chefs Pascal and Reese had a real connection to their purveyors.”

It’s true. Committed to using local and organic ingredients, reading the menu at 8100 isn’t simply a listing of what is served, but also where it’s from and who’s responsible for it. The Beaver Creek chefs didn’t deviate from who and what they are, culinarily speaking, at the special dinner. And they have a reputation: They don’t like anyone to go hungry. The appetizers alone made for a vivacious, smiling crowd (perhaps helped along by the Two Rivers vino), but they were just the tip of the top hat. A tour of the greatest hits of 8100, the extensive menu included elk, lamb, veal sweetbreads, chorizo, cheese, wines and spirits – all from Colorado – in addition to other national ingredients.

The Beard House is run by the James Beard Foundation, which is committed to preserving and nurturing America’s culinary heritage, including celebrating current chefs’ achievements and helping aspiring chefs through the educational system.

Chefs are invited to cook at the Beard House through a variety of means.

“Jacques Pepin has been especially instrumental in taking the time to recommend young cooks and rising stars that the Foundation should watch,” said Izabela Wojzic, director of House programming. “At the same time, I reach out to just as many chefs to invite them, based on their restaurant profiles, their menus, their pedigrees.”

In other words, it’s a big deal to score an invitation. And judging from who shows up to eat the dinners, it should be.

“It was a splendid dinner, well executed and the perfect mix of foods,” said my seatmate Scott, a travel producer with one of the three big networks. “The sauce on the prawns was amazing and the chorizo was unlike any I had before.”

From the murmurings of the crowd, other slam dunks included the lamb loin with white bean puree (Hay was a stickler for using only the center cut of each loin, making precise squares to top the creamy beans), the Colorado cheese sampler and a pear tatin that by rights everyone should have been too full to finish.

Smooth operators

The 8100 chefs had the sort of smooth experience they hoped for, but shouldn’t have expected. The biggest trauma they had to deal with was a lack of porcinis in Beaver Creek, a key element in the potato hash served with the grilled halibut. And that situation was summarily handled with a late-night call to a New York chef. Presto – porcinis arrived the next morning.

Though there are roughly five events weekly at the house, nobody was in the kitchen the day prior. That meant the duo could unpack all of the carefully prepped and portioned pieces created by Hay and Andrew “Juju” Salazar in the 8100 kitchen. Coudouy and Hay spent the better part of Tuesday going through their prepped items, getting the layout of the kitchen, familiarizing themselves with the grill and sorting out which of the house dishes would be used for which course. Dishes are a small detail, all things considered, but the size and shape of the presentation plates do affect how the food appears to the diners, and thus is part of the first impression. All of the things taken for granted in a home kitchen fly out the window when visiting a new one.

They were busy all day leading up to the dinner, stirring this, slicing that, helped along by a couple of New York-based chefs and culinary students. Like most New York home kitchens, it’s a tiny space, made slightly more exotic by the world maps papering the walls.

Nonetheless, as with any party, most guests ended up chatting in the kitchen, at least for a little while. Some talked to Coudouy and Hay behind the stove, others talked to each other while keeping an eye on the action. Eventually people were encouraged to move along by the eager diners entering after them. Getting a behind-the-scenes look is one of the perks of dining at the James Beard House.

The whole experience has an aura of the theatrical, right down to the blinking of the house lights to signal the end of cocktail hour and the beginning of the real performance: the dinner, served in five acts like any Shakespearean play.

The Beard House has been hosting multi-course tasting menus for two decades – long before the current tasting trend started. Still, cooking at the Beard House is unique. Occupying a four-story townhouse in the middle of a residential neighborhood, it’s literally the former domicile of the culinary legend himself. And there’s James Beard memorabilia galore, including a flamboyant, embroidered chef coat right outside the library-turned-dining room, which includes a wall of hundreds and hundreds of cookbooks accumulated by Beard. (There is also a startling, mirrored bathroom. You’ve got to see it to believe it.)

Unlike in other restaurants, the waitstaff is on salary with complete benefits, including a retirement plan and gym memberships. Coudouy and Hay didn’t meet the servers until an hour before the dinner began, when they gave a detailed description of each dish to the experienced servers. Some took notes, others asked questions. All obviously spoke the language of food. They’re used to working with different chefs every night of the week.

“It’s always fresh,” said Roderick Carter, an eight-year veteran of the Beard House waitstaff. “A different day means a new adventure.”

Maitre’D Jose Lucio laughed when asked how long he’s been at the Beard House.

“I’ve been here a long time, and I’m going to keep on staying,” Lucio said. “I love my job. We get to work with chefs from all over the world – always a new personality in the kitchen.”

Though visiting chefs will work for months on their menus, the waitstaff doesn’t have that luxury. That’s where Belly Mekuli, the floor captain, comes in. He makes sure the guest has as seamless an experience as possible, no matter what problems might arise.

“I have to keep everything running smoothly,” Mekuli said. “Whatever the chef’s ideas are, I have to help make it real. I improvise more than anyone else. Sometimes service is complicated. It’s my job to make it work.”

Wednesday night went smoothly: no gaps in the service, no lack of wine, no falling towers of food.

“For me, the best part was seeing the Colorado wines paired with each course,” said Scott. “In New York, I eat a different world type of cuisine every night and sometimes it takes a unique wine or a rare dish to really set apart the meal. The chefs from 8100 Mountainside really did a great job of bringing a taste of the West to the impressive James Beard House.”

And after bringing a taste of the Rockies to New York, what did our local chefs do? They went drinking, of course. McSorley’s, one of the oldest bars in the city that didn’t admit women until 1987, is a favorite haunt of Coudouy’s dating back to his own days living in New York. He likes the drink options: McSorley’s Light Beer and McSorley’s Dark Beer. That’s it. But since he and Hay served everything under the Rocky Mountain sun to their dinner guests, who needs more?


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