"I wanted to taste the food of Greater Palm Springs without a plane ticket,” a New Yorker in a velvet blazer said while passing glasses of champagne over my head.
We were standing shoulder to shoulder among eager diners beneath strings of twinkling lights in the townhouse at 167 W. 12th St. in Greenwich Village, also known as the James Beard House. Where the American cook, television personality, and cookbook author once lived and entertained, the not-for-profit James Beard Foundation now regularly invites chefs to visit, cook, collaborate, and share ideas through dinner parties that are open to the public. On a Saturday night in December, five chefs from around Greater Palm Springs took charge of this legendary Manhattan kitchen.
While restaurants often tuck their chefs out of sight, the James Beard House promises an interactive experience. Moments after stepping off the leafy street, guests enter a narrow kitchen with white brick walls and wooden block countertops. Chefs are at work among ladles on hooks, stacks of sauté pans, and towers of plates. You can greet them, ask a question or two, and watch them prepare your dinner while moving toward a back room overlooking the garden, where the evening begins with canapés.
Five chefs prepare a dinner highlighting distinctive flavors of the desert.
Diners marvel at each course while the ingredients and flavors fuel conversations from one table to the next.
The sound of popping champagne corks punctuated lively chats among strangers. The space was tight, which is common in New York City, but the cozy setting spurred conversations. The group next to me whispered about whether one guest had been a judge on Bravo’s Top Chef. Among the recognizable faces were a few well-known chefs who traded in their aprons to sit in the diner’s seat for the night.
After canapés, we climbed a flight of stairs to the dining area, set in several rooms sprawled across the parlor floor. Beard’s portrait hangs over the fireplace and is flanked by book-lined shelves. The tables, each accommodating two to eight people, were dressed with white linens and candles. Some groups were seated together while other tables began the evening with introductions as the first glass of wine was poured. The format of the event was five courses with paired wines, with one chef preparing each course.
Baskets of warm bread arrived at the table along with the first course from chef Michael Beckman of Workshop Kitchen + Bar and Truss & Twine in Palm Springs. In what seemed to be a nod to New York’s obsession with the schmear (of cream cheese on a bagel, that is), we spread Drake Family Farms goat cheese together with Temecula Valley honey and Nopal-style cactus confit, combining the familiar with desert fare.
“When you come to the Beard House, it’s a forum for ideas,” Beckman says. “I thought this dinner was a chance to challenge ideas about the terroir of Greater Palm Springs and expand people’s horizons when it comes to the flavors of the desert.”
The two courses that followed challenged my notions of what a taste of the desert could be. Chef Leanne Kamekona of ClubCorp served wild-caught ahi tuna sashimi with feta cheese, Coachella dates, and ponzu. On a chilly winter’s night, each delicate bite was a reminder of warmer days. Chef Stephen Wambach of SMW Inspired walked through the parlor with a pot of smoking juniper berries, perfuming the dining area with juniper as his fish course, Dory fleet catch with matsutake mushrooms and wild juniper, hit the tables. The volume turned down a notch during this course. The conversation at my table between bites went something like this: What is in this sauce? Who cares what’s in it — where’s the straw to slurp it all up?
The format for the dinner offered five courses with paired wines, with one chef preparing each course.
After veal cheeks braised in beer from chef Jennifer Town, formerly of Melvyn’s Ingleside Inn and Restaurant in Palm Springs, and the final course of Coachella Valley sticky date and ginger pudding from chef Andrew Copley of Copley’s on Palm Canyon and AC3 Restaurant + Bar in Palm Desert, guests who did care about what’s in the sauce got a chance to ask the chefs (Wambach told me that his sauce takes four days to complete and, among other ingredients, includes whole lobster, cognac, fish stock, veal stock, and juniper). We could also pose questions informally after the meal as the chefs milled around and diners finished their final glasses of wine and cups of coffee.
As always, the bathroom at the James Beard House surprised the guests. Located on the parlor floor, the water closet must be one of New York’s zaniest, with mirrors mounted on all surfaces, creating a quasi-funhouse effect (especially after a wine pairing or two). The space seems to be James Beard poking a joke at his guests and is a sharp contrast from the golden glow of the book-lined room on the other side of the door.
On the streets of lower Manhattan, it can feel at times as if old New York is disappearing one beloved shop and aged tavern at a time. But behind an exclusive set of doors on West 12th Street, its spirit lives on with each meal in the elegant dining room at the James Beard House.
The James Beard Gourmet Four-Course Luncheon is scheduled March 22, during Palm Desert Food & Wine, featuring celebrity chefs Stuart O’Keeffe (emcee), Fabio Viviani, Antonia Lofaso, Scott Conant, and dessert specialist Zac Young. A portion of the proceeds benefits the Friends of the James Beard Foundation’s Women’s Leadership Programs and Coachella Valley’s FIND Food Bank. Visit palmdesertfoodandwine.com for information and tickets.
Chefs Jennifer Town, Stephen Wambach, Andrew Copley, Leanne Kamekona, and Michael Beckman represented the good taste of Greater Palm Springs.