Six talented Philly chefs cook a pig dinner at Beard House in NYC

Country Pork Foie Gras Terrine with Pickled Vegetable Relish hors d'oeuvre.
Country Pork Foie Gras Terrine with Pickled Vegetable Relish hors d'oeuvre.
Posted: June 21, 2012

In the early-morning hours of June 13, six Philadelphia chefs began filling their trunks with meticulously organized containers and coolers, each vessel stocked with the raw materials necessary to execute an elaborate, $170-a-seat dinner at New York's James Beard House. One unmistakable foodstuff, however, had been fully prepared ahead of time. "We wanted to bring a little Philly up with us," said the event's organizer, Mémé's David Katz. "So we brought scrapple."

This was no processed slab of gray, store-bought mush. Katz and his kitchen crew made it entirely by hand, adding chicken livers, Canadian maple syrup, and spices to boiled-down heads from milk-fed piglets from St-Canut Farms in Quebec..

One of three hors d'oeuvres, it was the first taste provided to the 50 guests at the five-course feast, which also featured some of Philadelphia's top talent: Terence Feury (Fork), Michael Solomonov (Zahav), Peter Woolsey (Bistrot La Minette), John Taus (The Corner), and the between-restaurants Jennifer Carroll.

Was scrapple a bit folksy for the urbane Beard House, an internationally recognized destination that hosts hundreds of pricey events each year? Perhaps. But this was the Philadelphia Pork Show, and for the first time, the annual tradition had become a porcine pilgrimage.

The "pig dinner" began at Mémé in 2009, when Katz recruited a lineup of chef friends to hop behind his line. "I always liked the idea of cooking together," he said. "I was going to do a pork dinner by myself, but then I [thought] it would be fun to get other people to do it, too."

The event, a refreshingly informal occasion that allowed for lots of smack-talking, was a smash with diners, and they've hosted one every year since. That initial dinner has inspired a number of similarly calibrated events — see Zahav's lighthearted "Zombie Luau" party, scheduled for July 3 this year.

Katz, who last cooked at the Beard House in 2010, set up this year's field trip. A nonprofit, the Beard Foundation does not provide guest chefs with anything beyond a modest stipend for ingredients — costs are offset by the prestige the invitation carries.

Cooking, like any pursuit with an artistic edge, is competitive, but the collaborative ideal here superseded any backbiting inclinations. "We're all friends, but we never really get to bang pans together," said Solomonov, the 2011 winner of the Beard Foundation's Best Chef Mid-Atlantic honor. "It's really nice to be able to do that."

What's more, many of these chefs have overlapping resumés, lending a sense of scrappy nostalgia to the proceedings. In their line-cook days, Katz crashed on Carroll's floor for a time in San Francisco; Solomonov cooked with Carroll at Neil Stein's Avenue B and for Feury at Striped Bass. "One of the main points of these collaborative dinners is to hang out," said Woolsey, who also relishes the opportunity to prepare nondenominational dishes he'd never cook at his traditional French bistro.

These are sentiments echoed by Carroll, currently space-shopping for a concept she will call Concrete Blonde. "It's the camaraderie of it all," she said. "Getting to see everyone's cooking styles, sharing things with each other — ideas, techniques, business plans, advice."

The "pig" theme, with its reputation as versatile chef catnip, also helped the crowded kitchen click. "For a collaborative dinner, [pork is] fantastic, because you can do anything you want," said Feury, who plated seared pigs' trotters, paired with a smoked scallop and a vivid coriander-blessed carrot emulsion, for the dinner's third course.

Katz, whose arm sports a tattoo of a swine standing in a cast-iron pan, is vocal about his love of the oink. "A lot of chefs share the mind-set that it's the best animal on the planet," he said. "I'm here on Earth to eat pork." When the subject of how his heritage affects his relationship with the meat comes up, Katz barely blinks. "When it comes to eating things like pork," he said, "I'm not Jewish. I'm Jew-ish."

The six chefs treated the tight quarters of the James Beard kitchen as both proving ground and stand-up stage. After cocktail hour, when attendees spooned down Katz's bite-size scrapple croquettes, Taus started off the meal ambitiously. He used the binding agent Activa to blanket large head-on Louisiana shrimp with his own lomo (dry-cured pork loin), crisping the crustaceans on a white-hot plancha grill and plating them with streaks of pistou and smoked paprika vinaigrette.

Second up was Woolsey's tender wine-braised pork cheeks, laid out with cassis coleslaw and a tiny twice-baked fingerling potato. After Feury's pig-foot plate came Carroll's subtle take on tenderloin, topped with pan-roasted morels, spring onion puree, and a salty-sweet bacon-honey gastrique. For the finale, Solomonov chopped up smoked baby back ribs from his Percy Street Barbecue and incorporated them into dessert two ways: as a tuile wafer topping, and as a sneaky-savory meat/walnut praline beneath white chocolate shortcake ballasted by strawberry-labneh sherbet.

The natural clatter of the Beard kitchen staff, paired with the nearly constant banter of the chefs, made for a lively soundtrack, but a hush fell over the group ahead of each plating. The chatty sextet went stone-silent as they cranked out each course — high-level chefs, each accustomed to verbally controlling entire kitchen brigades, worked seamlessly together, wordlessly dancing around one another, armed with the spoons, sheet trays, and squeeze bottles necessary to complete one another's vision.

"It's nice to actually see the change that comes over people in the kitchen, the focus that comes out," said Carroll, who rarely gets to witness this side of her friends firsthand. "But we still have fun."

There was no shortage of antics from this crew in between platings. Feury got the business for accidentally wielding a bottle of truffle oil, a cooking cop-out he is known for ridiculing (the bottle was unlabeled); Carroll was mercilessly ribbed for her stardom stemming from her time on Bravo's Top Chef. Solomonov coerced everyone around him to consume "Szechuan buttons," tongue-numbing plant buds he found in the Beard refrigerator, rattling off a series of imponderable "would you rather?" questions along the way. ("Would you bite off and eat your own pinkie for $150,000? No? How about your pinkie toe?")

Gotham setting notwithstanding, the Pork Show was a fully Philadelphian experience, and those who missed it are in luck — on July 30, Katz will host a second installment of the dinner at Mémé, with a different chef lineup and a brand-new menu. And, yes, there will be scrapple.

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