When you ask Jeff Black, an effervescent man in his early 50s with the gift of gab, how he came to be the director of the James Beard Foundation's Celebrity Chef Tour, his answer is not short. It begins with heading up the Olympic Torch Relay for the Los Angeles games in 1984 and then goes off on a seeming tangent as a physicians' recruiter and eventually meanders around to 2004 when the James Beard House finances were in a shambles.
It was a decision, he says, "to take the house on tour."
In 2004 he put together nine dinners around the country, drawing together Beard award-winning chefs for multicourse meals open to the public, as a way to raise awareness — and money — for the foundation. This year that number has ballooned to 25. And on Dec. 5, the Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World hosted a biggie, the largest in Florida, with 154 diners paying $235 each for the opportunity to try eight courses from eight award-winning chefs.
A bit before 7 p.m., Michael "Sully" Sullivan, formerly the butcher at Blackberry Farms in Tennessee and now the spokesman for Creekstone Farms beef, was slicing and arranging. He had spent three days (largely while his wife waited patiently for him at the Four Seasons' pool) holed up in the hotel's butcher shop making pates and terrines and summer sausages. For this evening, he was serving a paper-thin beef carpaccio salad as a first course, but you could tell his passion was the leg of Ossabaw Island hog on the charcuterie buffet table.
"Centuries ago a Spanish ship crashed on Ossabaw Island and the Iberico pigs aboard mated with the local pigs. A friend of mine raises the descendants. This I started salt curing two years ago."
Meanwhile, in another room, Gerard Craft, 2015 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef-Midwest (Niche, Taste, Pastaria and others in St. Louis) had deftly moved to Plan B.
His third course on the menu, a roasted winter squash, was thwarted by a marked lack of squash.
"I picked up vegetables from my farms. I got a lot of carrots, but I didn't get squash," he said, which led to him boarding a flight from St. Louis with four cooler boxes of organic rainbow carrots from Berger Bluff Farm near the Missouri River, which he then plated in a gorgeous composed salad with cumin yogurt, orange peel, mint, dill and mild espelette peppers.
But before guests got that one, Florida legend Norman Van Aken got busy making a whole lot of smoke, capturing it under wine glasses and slipping those glasses atop what he was calling "bass under glass."
"Certain dishes come to me in a disheveled dream state. I remember having pheasant under glass with my parents. ... It was a dish that invokes a theatrical element. And while glass rhymes with bass, tonight we're doing it with a local wreckfish."
For many of the diners, the lineup of chefs, several from the Midwest, included unfamiliar names. For folks like Roy Jay from Orlando, who attended with his girlfriend Jennifer Pence, the evening was a serendipitous find.
"I was researching wine dinners and galas in some major cities and ran across the annual James Beard Gala dinner in New York City. From there I explored the James Beard Foundation website and saw that they hosted chef dinners at their house. I then stumbled upon the chef tour link and was delighted to discover that there was a dinner scheduled for December in Orlando."
As with so many things, the chef lineup for the evening had a lot to do with relationships. Fabrizio Schenardi, the Four Seasons' executive chef, had previously done a Beard dinner while at the Four Seasons in St. Louis, where he met Craft. And Stefan Riemer, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Pastry Chef in Concept Development, had previously met Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia in Louisville. And then somehow Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia in Chicago and Top Chef Masters got in on the party to further represent the Midwest for the evening.
Mantuano's contribution was a tiny but sumptuous ravioletto filled with crescenza cheese and nutty with brown butter, shaved truffle releasing wafts of their heady earthiness, after which Schenardi offered delicate squares of fork-tender beef cheek in barolo sauce followed by Edward Lee's Korean-inflected seared rib-eye with gochujang butter — each dish paired with a wine from Columbia Winery and accompanied by dish explications from each chef.
At the very first Beard House dinner, Black said, it was Wolfgang Puck cooking seven courses for $40.
"Twelve people showed up and Julia Child and the rest (of the Beard House organizers) were thrilled."
These days, as evidenced by the sellout crowd, James Beard award-winning chefs are a huge draw for the country's growing number of food aficionados.
But the logistics of "taking the house on tour" must be tricky. Who decides which chef does which course, and whether all the dishes will marry seamlessly? Isn't the saying that too many cooks spoil the pot?
"We talk back and forth by phone," said Schenardi as he rushed back into the kitchen for the next course, adding with a characteristic wry grin, "And then we let everybody do what they want."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.