Friends of James Beard Benefit Dinner: Elevage – Tampa, FL

Who is James beard and why does everyone in the food world love him? Honestly, I’m not exactly sure all the reasons, and as most can confirm, I’m too lazy to do a Google search to find out. What I do know is that he loved food more than you or I ever will. He built up a grand knowledge of cookery, developing a huge following through the many series of instruction throughout the country and in his home in Manhattan for decades during the middle of the 20th century. So many credit Julia Child for her enormous influence on the American home cook. Well, Mr. Beard was a similarly potent influence on just about every aspect of food, be it in the restaurant industry, food writing, instruction and even in our groceries.

When gauging the greatness of an American chef, a simple check to see if he or she has ever been a semi-finalist in the yearly award ceremony will erase all doubt. Just to sniff at a James Beard award is basically a confirmation that you know what you’re doing, and the best part is, anyone can win. Except me maybe, but I don’t hold it against them. I’m not bitter…really.

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The James Beard foundation has instituted a roaming dinner series all over the country as a vehicle to raise money for the vast amount of charity work they do. They call them Friends of James Beard Dinners. The Tampa Bay Area has been host to a few of them, but not for a long time. It’s been almost two years since we enjoyed the cavalcade of local chefs coming together for a great cause. You might think that bringing together eleven chefs from Tampa Bay, who in a round about way compete everyday for our business, and sticking them  in the same kitchen might be a recipe for disaster. However, from what I’ve heard about the back of house goings on, it was more camaraderie than competition. Even though I’m sure they all wanted to put up the best food possible, they did so without vitriol.

Consider the state of the Tampa food scene two years ago. A meal like this couldn’t have even been conceived, as many of the chefs that shared the spotlight didn’t have places of their own back then. Now, we have a bare minimum of eleven chefs representing their respective establishments to give us the meal of a lifetime. All of these restaurants have their own identity and point of view, yet acted like worker bees inside the host kitchen, Chad Johnson’s Elevage at the Epicurean Hotel.

Tampa James Beard Foundation 2014

I realize the timeliness of this piece is a bit off as it has already been covered by other entities. I don’t feel it required an immediate write up as you can’t find any of these dishes in any of the kitchens of any of the restaurants. At least that I know of. The purpose is to show you what these guys and gals are capable of. We can give them all our blessing to really go for it all the time by supporting them and being good patrons. Order the specials or the tasting menus at these places. You will almost always be given a sleek meal that is usually a peek into the future when compared to the rest of the menu. To describe every dish in dramatic detail would result in an additional 5,000 word essay and I’m sure you don’t want to suffer through 14 separate dishes each with their own unique pop culture reference to describe the flavor. And you probably don’t want to hear about how I thought something tasted like bologna, but in the best possible way of course.

Tampa James Beard Foundation 2014 2

I will say this though, every chef paid homage to their home state, be it in the technique, the ingredients used, or the Florida cracker cuisine that’s gaining notoriety. From the lobster & avocado salad with passion fruit vinaigrette curated by Restaurant BT, to the smoky quail with a burgoo sauce that married the flavors of our Florida swamp with the simple elegance of the rolling Basque hillside presented by Chef Johnson himself, even our favorite dish of the night, the Snapatrufalojam, a perfectly portioned piece of crispy skin on Florida red snapper laid on a truffled mash and sweet tomato jam with little black truffle shavings strewn all over the plate. Thank goodness it’s truffle season! I love the fact that chef Zack of Z Grille didn’t let anyone in on the concept, not even the head of the wine program knew, as he had to guess on the pairing. It added to the mystique in a Jennifer Lawrence way, not the odd Rebecca Romijn Stamos O’Connell kind of X-3 the Last Stand kind of cluster.

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My only concern is my waistline. Some of the dishes were entrée size. By the third or fourth course, most of the room was belly aching about being full. If some of the dishes were smaller, I think we would have enjoyed the visually sensational peanut butter and chocolate kitchen sink dessert that was presented by Café Ponte. There was even a petit four bar from Chocolate Pi that was too tempting to bypass. I sampled one of the coolest bites ever thought up, what do you get when cross a cheese plate with a cookie? A beet and goat cheese macaron. Great idea and execution, hopefully that will end up in the case this fall.

My wife and I were invited guests of the Epicurean hotel for this meal to support a great cause, namely providing scholarships to underprivileged kids so that they can fulfill their food based dreams. The event helped us to meet new friends with the same love of eating, we may not have ever met otherwise. Those included were Laura Riley of the Tampa Tribune along with her photographer who gave the table some nice insight into was really going on in the kitchen. Not to be forgotten was a married couple who were some of the most humble and down to earth conversational people I can remember. The wife mentioned in passing how her father traveled the globe and actually created a cookbook from all the ideas he brought back home. I asked if it was in circulation, and she said it was still somewhere out there. After exchanging contact information, a few days later to my bewilderment we received a copy in the mail. How sweet was that. Thank you very much Sadie. We plan to put it to work real soon. Along with giving me a couple more places to add to the list of must eat restaurants, it also grew my desire to plan a visit to the Beard house in Manhattan to attend one of the more than 200 dinners they host a year.

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