NEW YORK CITY -- Disarming intimacy clings to dinner at the James Beard House, where Important Food cannot overrule a good time. That's what made it easier for a young Virginia chef to take her third bow last week and leave town smiling, if a bit exhausted.
Winemaker Luca Paschina of Bar-boursville Vineyards and Melissa Close of the vineyard's Palladio Restaurant were invited to serve as hosts of a winemaker dinner July 24, an honor not without its hazards.
Close came primed to whip out hors d'oeuvres and a five-course, six-wine meal, and because this was her third such invitation in as many years, she knew the drill and the uncertainties that unfailingly accompany dinner service at this level.
The audience would be a mix of brokers, attorneys, young sophisticates, foodophiles and wine collectors, with family members from Alabama and elsewhere adding up to a highly attuned 75 guests, eager to taste some of everything.
Close and her retinue drove through rain the day before with all the goods they'd need: heirloom tomatoes, local beef and crab, fresh herbs, ice even boxwood clippings and lilies for the tables. Her team included Eva Payne, a server en route to Harvard; Jaclyn Conlogue, a line cook at Palladio; Michael Yager of the Keswick Hall hotel; Todd Grieger of Blue Light Grill in Charlottesville; and culinary school intern Anthony Carnevale II, who snapped a few photos to record the experience in his portfolio.
Beard's kitchen is about one-third the size of Palladio's, but Close was calm as she built scallop and parsnip puree into ravioli and supervised the crew. Their work was less complicated than most evenings at her restaurant.
But in New York, Close would be onstage each guest stepped into the kitchen to greet the chef and then headed onto the terrace for sparkling wine, speck and brie croissants and crispy polenta with mozzarella, all plated with zinnia blossoms and passed by Beard servers who could name every Beard Foundation member.
The setting was part dinner party, part debut, and "it's less scary by now," Close says "but always an honor to be in New York and getting to serve our local ingredients and wines, and to have this great experience."
Reminders of Beard, the influential chef and author who died in 1985, are vivid in the brownstone where he lived, worked and entertained: outsized oil portraits, an elaborately embroidered chef's coat now framed, a raised platform in the parlor where he slept beneath mirrors. Even the bathroom shower remains, exposed to greenhouse windows and West Village neighbors who could see too clearly the famously corpulent one as he bathed. Complaints were issued, but the showerhead stayed, dry and oddly conspicuous in a room now used for dining during the house's near-nightly functions.
Guests filed into the front hall at 7 p.m., greeted by a burst of corn-patterned wallpaper and longtime maŒtre d' José Luciö of Portugal. Later Paschina took over, suave and precisely suited to his guest-host role. The Italian-born winemaker poured and charmed, rhapsodizing at one point about memorable years in the Charlottesville-area vineyard. ("1997, '98 and '99 were very good; 2000 was not horrible but close; 2003 it rained forever, and '04, '05 and '06 we've had beautiful vintages," he says.) Guests who were skeptical of Virginia wines said they'd become converts as the rosé and pinot grigio gave way to viognier and nebbiolo reserves. Not a bottle remained uncorked.
After each course was served duck prosciutto, poached lobster tail, grilled flank steak with a 50-year-old balsamic the dining rooms took on a merriment level just short of boisterous. By gelato, conversations veered from food to travel and Bloomberg and lives well-lived these guests understood the evening's mission and their $300 per-couple tariff felt almost a bargain by New York standards, enough so that many would be back for other chefs within a week or two.
Near 10 p.m., Close, Paschina and company filed into the candlelit rooms for applause and congratulations. The evening had surpassed their hopes, and it was a particular thrill for Close to sign her grazie! on one of Beard's white coats and to receive a good kitchen knife as a thank-you symbol, though the event's prestige was the better intangible.
What she looked forward to most by then was a glass of wine, a cigarette and a chance to breathe in the New York air on a gorgeous summer evening, sated with something more satisfying than food. S