On the Menu: The James Beard Foundation comes to Jackson

eat.drink.MISSISSIPPI April / May 2013

April / May 2013

Even though almost three decades have passed since the death of American chef and food writer James Beard, “The Father of American Gastronomy” still plays a significant role in molding and influencing the
food culture in America. Whether through the twenty cookbooks he published during his lifetime, the cooking school where he taught, or the work his foundation has done to inspire and support future generations of cooks, James Beard’s legacy has left a mark on the world that will not be forgotten.

The James Beard Foundation was established in 1986 after Beard’s longtime friend Julia Child approached several of his friends and colleagues with an idea to preserve the Greenwich Village, NY, brownstone where Beard lived and frequently entertained students, authors, chefs, and other industry professionals. Today, the Foundation mentors future generations of chefs through scholarships, educational programs, lectures, special events, and its prestigious awards program.

Earlier this year, Jackson had the privilege of hosting “Southern Comfort Redux,” its first Friends of James Beard Benefit Dinner. Seven of Mississippi’s best chefs came together to prepare a multi-course
meal complete with carefully selected wine pairings to raise money for the James Beard Foundation Scholarship Fund. Since 1991, the James Beard Foundation Scholarship Program has awarded over $4.2
million in financial aid to students and working culinary professionals.

While this was the first time this event has been held in Jackson, the state of Mississippi is not a
newcomer to the scene.

“Mississippi has a really rich tradition of James Beard dinners,” revealed Chef Tom Ramsey, who hosted
and helped orchestrate the event at his restaurant Underground 119 in Jackson. “They started back in
the nineties in the Delta with KC’s Restaurant [in Cleveland, MS]. Mississippi also has a rich history of James Beard nominees. Derrick Emerson [Walker’s Drive In] was a James Beard nominee. Taylor Bowen
Ricketts [Delta Bistro] in Greenwood is also a James Beard nominee.”

Ramsey was joined by fellow chefs Dan Blumenthal of Mangia Bene Catering, which owns Bravo!, Broad
Street Baking Company & Café, and Sal and Mookies; Jeremy Enfinger, executive chef of Ruth’s Chris
Steakhouse in Ridgeland; Jesse Houston, chef de cuisine of City Grocery in Oxford; Mitchell Moore,
owner of Campbell’s Bakery in Fondren; Mike Roemhild, executive chef of Table 100 in Flowood; and
Nick Wallace, executive chef at the Hilton Garden Inn (formerly known as the historic King Edward
Hotel) in downtown Jackson.

The sold-out meal featured seven courses of the finest local cuisine Mississippi has to offer such as
Mississippi farm-raised catfish, Louisiana bowfin roe, red wine and butter poached rabbit, Gulf fresh
seafood, and Louisiana crawfish. Five sommeliers were on hand to recommend one wine and one regional beer to complement each dish. The meal stood out from other James Beard scholarship dinners in that it was served family-style, something Ramsey says has particular significance.

“James Beard was more about the process of sharing a meal not feeding someone. There is a big difference,” Ramsey explains. “We did this meal family style expressly for that purpose. We had people
who didn’t know each other sitting at the same table and instead of all of the conversation being centered around, ‘What is it that is going to be put in front of me? Here is my little plate and my little universe and I’m going to eat this,’ it was passing platters around and it was a lot more interaction.”

The meal was so successful that the group has been invited to recreate the dinner at the James Beard
House in New York City. An invitation to cook at the James Beard House is highly coveted and has been extended to other noteworthy chefs such Emeril Lagasse, Daniel Boulud, Nobu Matsuhisa, Jacques
Pépin, and Charlie Trotter. Plans to set a date are currently in the works.

Overall, Ramsey could not be more pleased with the way the meal came together. “It was fantastic,”
he said. “Seven great chefs – all with different influences and different talents – that kind of share
this passion for creating really wonderful things and the interaction you get from feeding someone.
Jackson is really developing its culinary scene and this was a great way to move the ball forward for the chefs of Jackson. It’s a great validation of what we’re doing here.”

For more information about the James Beard Foundation, visit http://www.jamesbeard.org.