It’s almost impossible to believe, but prior to 2006, Charleston, SC was food festival-less. Angel Postell and her formidable team changed all that in the spring of 2006 with the advent of what’s now called The BB&T Charleston Wine & Food Festival.
The timing was impeccable. While Charleston restaurants have been on the food world’s radar for some twenty five years, it’s in just the past few six or seven years that it’s gotten smokin’ hot in Charleston’s restaurant kitchens. Since then, not one but three local chefs have taken home James Beard awards, many others have been nominated, Sean Brock’s newest restaurant, Husk, has been deemed the best new restaurant of the year, and more amazing restaurants are popping up (particularly on Upper King Street) than mushrooms after a rain storm. So, it seems absolutely fitting that we have a world-class festival to showcase our own local culinary talent, as well as that of the entire nation.
As the 7th festival prepares to kick off this week, March 1 – March 4, I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on festival’s past, especially the very first festival. The final planning for the festival happened to coincide with my recent resignation as a restaurant critic and food writer for The Post and Courier, Charleston’s local daily newspaper. Thus,for the first time in nearly a decade, I was able to step out and away from the mandated cloud of absolute anonymity around local chefs, and into the front lines of all the fun.
I remember sitting around Nathalie Dupree’s dining room table with a group of about twelve people on the planning committee putting the finishing touches on the last frantic rounds of planning. That very same week, I made a trip with a few other brave soldiers to a local restaurant supply store armed with a very long list of items to purchase for the demo and prep kitchens, filling at least four carts along the way. A few days before the festival, myself and a tiny group worked unpacking those very items along with a huge collection of Le Crueset pots and pans to set up the prep kitchen. There was laughter, there was a lot of wind flapping the wings of the tents, and there were a lot of raw nerves. But, when it was all said and done, the first festival came and went amazingly smoothly and was generally well-received. And, in subsequent years, they have only gotten better.
Over the years, some memories stand out more than others. The year of the “gale,” when driving wind and copious amounts of rain practically drowned the opening night gala tent. The year the Le Crueset wall in the demo tent came tumbling down. The year a slightly sodden stalker followed me relentlessly all around the tasting tent. The year I ran all around Marion Square, twice, to try and find a fresh, whole head of garlic for the always gentlemanly Frank Stitt. The year a slightly pampered chef (who shall remain un-named) had a melt down over roasted beets and some apparent errors in his demo basket preparation. The year of my first book signing. And, then there was the year I covered the festival’s headlining event, Food & Wine with a View, starring Daniel Boulud.
Because I trained in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu, French chefs have always ranked very high on my list of people I admire. It’s the way the work, the way they speak, the way they create – when well done, it’s captivating, inspiring, and delicious. My job on this night was simple – watch, listen, eat, drink and eventually, write about it. It was the dream assignment! Watching Chef Boulud and his team orchestrate the preparation of the feast was like watching poetry in motion, a perfectly executed performance of culinary theater. Even though it’s been over two years, every morsel of the entire evening is permanently etched in my mind.
But, of all the events, food, wine, glamor, it’s being down in the trenches, behind the scenes in the decidedly unglamorous (but highly functional) demo prep kitchen where I love being best. This is where the action is – bulk chopping and dicing, the unique camaraderie that exists between fellow chefs and cooks, hard, manual labor, and, usually some amazing rocking tunes to set it all off blaring from a remote corner of the tent.
That’s where I’ll be in just a few days. It can’t get here soon enough!
For more information and/or tickets to the BB&T Charleston Wine & Food Festival, visit www.charlestonwineandfood.com
For a writer, there are many notable firsts.
The first published work, the first published book, the first royalty check, the first regional award, and then, for a food writer there is la creme de la creme, a coveted James Beard Award. Commonly and aptly described as The Oscars of the food world, this annual event lauds the best of the best in the world of wine and food including writers, chefs, cookbook authors, journalists, media, food TV personalities/programming, and producers of food. It is, to say the very least, a big deal to win a “Beard”.
So, even though I haven’t yet experienced my Beard big first, a nomination (or, dare I name it?) an award, I decided it was time to go to New York and experience the awards ceremony myself. Added mental justifications included the facts that Charleston-based chef, Craig Deihl of Cypress, was a nominee for Best Chef Southeast and my friend Laurie McNeill, most serendipitously, was scheduled to be in town at the same time. Thus, despite a looming deadline, I could not find a single excuse not to go. But, what to expect?
I didn’t have a clue, but I knew I had to get a fancy dress and do my best to have a grand time without making a Champagne-laced fool of myself. So, on the day of the awards (this past Monday), I went off to a spa and spent much of the morning doing the whole manicure, pedicure and facial gig, later napped, and got dressed. These efforts, at least according to initial passerby’s commentary, seemed to have paid off. The man who took this picture (above) told me that I was “beautiful” and should not be working, but instead, be married to a very rich man and passing my days eating bon bons and drinking Champagne. Bring it! These were most welcome words, indeed, given that I’m 46 years old and, just hours ago, my face had been described as “congested” and my upper lip as “hairy” by my well-intended but painfully blunt facialist. A smiling man, drooling frozen yogurt down his lurching chin as he passed, added ironic fuel to my rather weak, but growing confidence fire. Next, it was off to the awards and The Lincoln Center!
The Charleston Contingent
A full hour before the show even began, there was a sea of black tuxedos, pretty faces, and television cameras clogging the entrance. Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse were both being interviewed. Alas, I saw not a familiar friend face in the crowd. Inside, it was more of the same, until I saw a group of friends and colleagues that a nearby columnist deemed “The Charleston Contingent”. Another apt description!
Cypress executive chef and Best Chef Southeast nominee Craig Deihl was there, beaming with palpable joy and nervous anticipation, his lovely wife, Colleen, by his side. With them, were long-time friends and colleagues and Charleston Wine and Food Festival VIP’s, Angel Postell and Randi Weinstein, both radiant and cheering Craig on with the rest of us. (Later, I would run into many of the leading members of HMGI, the restaurant group that owns Cypress and who came to town to support their affable and talented main-man chef).
Eventually, the doors to the auditorium opened and the crowd of approximately 2,000 foodies slowly found their seats. For the sake of brevity, I’ll limit the description of the actual ceremony to my three strongest impressions: 1) Beautifully produced and orchestrated, 2) Emotionally moving, and 3) Too long, totalling a total of three hours. The details in the planning, particularly in the many videos produced for certain honorees, were mesmerizing. Many of the speeches showcased a heart-warming sense of pride, passion, humility, and a sense of unity among the chefs present. One of the most moving (and, also the longest) speeches was by Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Kevin Zraly, who kicked it off with (count ‘em!) nine push-ups and ended it with a moving ode to the 72 friends and colleagues he (and the world) lost at Windows on the World on 9/11. Alas, Chef Deihl did not have an opportunity to take the stage, as Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill, NC took home the Southeast chef’s prize, graciously praising her fellow Southeast nominees as she did so.
After the official ceremonies concluded (and a little bit before for some of the hungry masses), the crowd disseminated through table upon table heaping with delices bearing the edible “Ultimate Melting Pot” theme of the evening. Champagne, wine, and whiskey were freely poured to help wash it all down. Even though the entire place was generously peppered with culinary
luminaries like Jacques Pepin and foodie rock stars like Bobby Flay, unbelievably, it was two pigs that stole the show.
These porcine darlings (pictured right), mascots for Whistle Pig Straight Rye Whiskey from Shoreham, VT, were tucked somewhere between the live banjo music and Dom Perignon, oblivious to all the fawning and snapshots, that is, until they started smelling all the food that was passing under their sleepy little snouts. Then, they really put on a show, prancing and preening for all to see. Bet they slept well that night, dreaming of rutting and rooting their way through The Big Apple. I don’t know, but I’m guessing, this was a New York first for these pigs that will not soon be forgotten.
Congratulations to all of the nominees and honorees for this year’s James Beard Award! You earned it. I think there should be a best-bacon honorable mention in honor of these pigs. They, along with so many other things, made this first a memorable and enjoyable one. All foodies should put the James Beard Awards on their must do-list. Speaking of must- do’s here are two that I discovered while I was in the city:
1900 Broadway (@64th Street)
New York, New York 10023
The latest addition to multi-decorated chef, multi-awarded James Beard winner, Daniel Boulud’s international restaurant empire, this charming, delicious emporium glitters with Gallic goodness. Serving breakfasts of exquisite patisseries, lunches of gourmet sandwiches/soups, artisinal cheeses, and housemade charcuterie, the “epicerie” is designed to become an oyster and wine hot spot for the late night crowd as well. You’ll never see a more beautiful eclair this side of Paris or eat a fresher, sweeter oyster, anywhere. Chef Boulud and his staff hosted a lively after-party here (just across the street from The Lincoln Center) that was full to the brim with more culinary greats and authors, including Ruth Reichl and Jacques Pepin.
Best Least Expected Find:
881 Eighth Avenue (between 52 & 53 Streets)
New York, New York 10019
Smack dab in the middle of the theater district, my friend Laurie and I discovered this while we were looking for a suitable spot for a night cap. Quiet at first, the place slowly morphed into a huge and lively neighborhood destination, complete with live music and television celebrity regulars. The best part of all, though, is the familial-driven hospitality and the fabulous Northern Italian food served here. Mozzarella and pasta are made in house. Cielo hosts a popular pre-matinee theater luncheon on Wednesday afternoons.