I Agree With Ted Allen. The James Beard Culinary Mix Dinner At Kuro Was 'Interesting, Surprising, Weird’—And Packed With Culinary Innovation
In the weeks leading up to the James Beard Culinary Mix dinner at Kuro, I'd done my best to keep from boasting to my friends about the fact that I'd be dining with "Chopped" host Ted Allen and James Beard Award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson.
Ordinarily I love making my friends envious of the gourmet meals I get to eat for work, but this occasion was just too huge a deal to humble brag about appropriately—even for me. But once I arrived at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and met another overeager guest who I'd be sitting with, I knew I wasn't alone in my excitement.
Not long into the evening, however—before the first course of king crab with persimmon and thin-sliced daikon radishes was brought out—we were all reminded that this was more than a night of mingling with celebrity chefs.
The Jan. 19 benefit dinner for the James Beard Foundation would help the culinary arts organization continue its mission of nurturing chefs, supporting up-and-coming culinary students with scholarships, and honoring food industry leaders. That's why Allen (as emcee for the night), Samuelsson and Kuro's Alex Becker (our chefs for the evening) had come together.
"This is the most important [culinary] organization in the United States and, arguably, much of the world, so if James Beard Foundation tells our little competition show that we are a valid thing that chefs appreciate, then that means the world to me, so I’m thrilled to do anything for the James Beard Foundation that I can," said Allen, who hosts the popular Food Network program "Chopped."
"In 2012, we won two James Beard Awards ourselves for a show that does really awful things to chefs, but at its heart, it’s because we know that chefs do not take no for an answer, and if we challenge a chef with a difficult task … they will not back down, they will not say no," Allen added. "They will say, ‘Oh you think I can’t cook with Doritos and, you know, sea robin? Bring it!’ And I love that."
The evening represented a similar competitive spirit as the show, in the sense that two chefs with such distinct culinary backgrounds would come together to take on a different kind of challenge: teamwork.
Throughout the night, we experienced a jointly curated menu of dishes that showed off each chef's culinary specialties. Becker highlighted his new-style Japanese approach with a 30-day dry-aged wagyu ribeye topped with toro (tuna belly) tartare, while Samuelsson opted for a three-part chicken course that served as a tribute to his Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem.
"I don’t care very much about trends, but a couple of trends I really love—and one of them is the idea of chefs collaborating," Allen said.
All of us at the table were admittedly a little confused when that "All About the Bird" chicken course came out. The menu description read, "whole chicken, chicken oyster, foie gras ganache." So when we were presented with a small paté-esque dish, we concluded it must be the foie gras but still weren't entirely sure. (A short transcript of the discourse that followed at the table, as everyone began thinking out loud: "So was a whole chicken used to make this?" "Are we supposed to save this until the next dish comes out and eat them together?" "Well, I mean, it tastes good…")
We decided we must've been right to dive into the dish on its own once we discovered this was just the first of a somewhat backward-presented course, with fried chicken oysters (small, oyster-shaped pieces of dark meat known for being flavorful and tender) next, and the whole chicken, to our relief, brought out at the end. Samuelsson later explained that he'd intentionally presented these items in the reverse order of what might be the standard progression in order to highlight some of the most humble parts of the bird that are equally delicious.
Dessert also stirred up debate. ("Is this even edible?" versus "Is this not the greatest dessert I've ever had in my life?") The final course from Kuro's pastry chef, Ross Evans, was a not-too-sweet and, in fact, sort-of-savory green dessert that played with foreign flavors and unexpected textures. No matter how I felt about the color, the black sesame panna cotta with ginger gelée, cucumber gel sphere, and nori (seaweed) sponge was certainly the pinnacle of a meal Allen described overall as "delicious, most importantly, beautiful, challenging, interesting, surprising, weird."
As guests capped off the evening by begging the celebrity chefs for a photo, the kitchen staff also turned to photographs—but with each other—to commemorate the special evening, Allen observed.
"They’re all taking selfies right now," he said. "They all know they kicked ass. They’re congratulating each other, and they’ll go home and get up at 4 in the morning and do it again tomorrow."
Lead photo of Marcus Samuelsson, Alex Becker and Ted Allen (L to R) courtesy of Kuro