In the past few weeks, two of Washington’s top chefs — Christophe Poteaux of Aquarelle at the Watergate Hotel and Frank Morales of Zola — presented meals at the Beard House, at once one of American cooking’s great honors and one of its most pressure-filled stages. Members and guests of this gastronomic outpost in the West Village take their food seriously (at $90 per person, they’d better), and they’ve seen some of the top culinary talent in the world come through to try to impress them.
The late Julia Child was instrumental in making the Beard House what it is today. After James Beard, one of the fathers of American gourmet cooking, died in 1985, Child sought to create a foundation to honor his legacy.
The foundation says its mission is “furthering the practice and appreciation of the culinary arts in America.” It offers scholarships, educational programs and annual awards. But it’s best known for the nondescript brownstone house — “You’d never know it was there without looking for it,” Morales said — that’s been called the Carnegie Hall of cooking. At Child’s suggestion, one of Beard’s former students bought his home and converted it into a playground for chefs and diners.
About five times per week, the house hosts a different chef, selected by a committee. In Poteaux’s case, “some of the people I knew in New York City got in touch with me,” he said. Those people date back to his time at the Manhattan-based French Culinary Institute (FCI), where the native of the Paris suburbs studied by day while cooking under five-star chef Daniel Boulud at night. A friend of his from the FCI sits on the board at the Beard house and suggested him for its Best Hotel Chefs of America series.
Which is why Poteaux was in lower Manhattan on a chilly Saturday afternoon in late February, overseeing eight pots and pans on the stove, to say nothing of Aquarelle’s pastry chef, Michelle Garbee, and three volunteer assistants from the FCI that he had met only hours before. One member of his ad hoc staff was slicing potatoes with a mandoline, another was reducing sauces and a third was saut�ing the fish, which would be finished in the oven at dinnertime.
“Use the fish spatula, not tongs … the fish is very delicate,” he cautioned of his John Dory fillet, the third of five courses he’d serve to 80 people in four hours’ time.
Planning for this day began in the summer of 2004, when Poteaux was creating his winter tasting menu, much of which would find its way onto the menu for the Beard House.
He and Garbee left Washington at 4 p.m. the previous day in a pickup truck filled with nearly everything they would serve — vacuum-sealed at the Watergate — save the fish and some produce. They finished unloading in New York at 11:30 p.m., after that night’s chef had cleared out, and began prep at 9 a.m. Saturday.
The first order of business, Poteaux said, is to look at the in-house plates to see what would work best for each dish. After spending the better part of the morning and afternoon making sauces and trimming fish and vegetables, when 4 p.m. strikes it is time for final preparations. Poteaux feeds the employees, reviews the menu with the waiters and demonstrates each plate. By 6:30, it is time to begin assembling the hors d’oeuvres for the first guests, who will arrive at 7.
“It’s all a matter of organization,” he said. “I’ve done a lot bigger than 80.”
But not in these conditions. “They’re pretty well equipped; it’s a professional kitchen,” he said, but quickly added that the Watergate kitchen is “probably 15 times bigger.” Indeed, this professional kitchen is crammed into a narrow, pre-war row house, as are the tables in the dining rooms upstairs. Waiters are tasked with running food up and down countless steps to serve each room.
Morales, who presented his meal in late March, agreed. “That kitchen is a tough kitchen to work,” he said.
Both chefs had been to the Beard house before, assisting other chefs, but neither had ever been the featured chef.
Morales, who appeared as part of the house’s Rising Stars of American Cuisine series, remembers little about it. “Everything is just like this the first time,” he said, moving his hands along the sides of his eyes like blinders. So, “I counted on nothing. I brought everything up.” Including his sous chef, pastry chef and Brian Kenny, the executive chef from Red Sage, which is owned by the same company as Zola.
Morales is a New York native who cooked at Union Pacific and Le Cirque, which gave him some advantages. The day before, he rented a Ford Explorer and packed everything in dry ice for the trip. That night, he was able to use the walk-in coolers at the W Hotel in midtown for cold storage. If he was missing anything, he said, he could hop the fence and go two doors down to his friend’s restaurant.
But being a local also comes with pressures. In Morales’s case, his mother came in to dine that night.
In the end, each night was a ringing success for each chef. All the demanding guests — including Mom — went home full, happy and impressed with what Washington has to offer.
Christophe Poteaux’s James Beard House menu
Diver scallop escab�che with sweet garlic cream, pickled vegetables and Banyuls jus
Duo of cured and seared Hudson Valley foie gras with honey-spiced bread pudding and quince-calvados compote
Roasted whole John Dory with P�rigord truffle veal jus and stewed salsify
Braised lamb osso bucco with honey-syrah sauce and chestnut pur�e
Warm pistachio gateaux with date syrup and hazelnut ice cream
Frank Morales’s James Beard House menu
Pipe Dreams Farm goat-cheese terrine with Virginia Country ham and vanilla smoked quince
Chesapeake Bay blue-crab hot pot with forest mushrooms, pickled pearls and lemon-saffron floats
Wine-soaked planked sable with truffled Nora Mill grits and grapes
Summerfield Farm veal loin, loaf and wweetbreads with parsnip pur�e, smoked peppers and elderflowers
Root beer with ginger-infused rum and butter brickel float and grown-up egg cream
Pumpkin doughnut with cinnamon glaze, espresso-buttermilk doughnut with apple-jam filling and rum- and lime-scented snowballs