When I saw my first bowtie and matching pocket square, I felt slightly trepidatious. What kind of stiff, old-Richmond event had I signed myself up for? It was a cold January night, and, because I was late, I quickly followed the swish of chiffon and the tap-tap of high heels hitting the marble floor of The Jefferson's lobby to Lemaire for the Friends of James Beard Benefit Dinner hosted by Chef Walter Bundy. He had invited three guest chefs: John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford, Miss., John Fleer of Canyon Kitchen in Cashiers, N.C., and Colby Garrelts of bluestem restaurant in Kansas City, Mo.
Tall flutes of sparkling wine, along with hors d'oeuvres (like prosciutto gougères with pickled okra or a stew of oxtails with bourbon served in a tiny cup) were carried through the crowd — frequently, and in abundant quantities — and I felt the mood of the crowd shift. The volume, already at a low roar in Lemaire, seemed to increase, and as I looked around, I realized that my bowtie-recoil was unjustified. It was a dress-up occasion, certainly, but the crowd had a much wider range in age and fashion choices than I'd noticed when I first glanced around. Stereotypes (in my own head) dropped away, and it was apparent that these folks were ready to relax and eat some good food.
Bundy set the tone for the evening before it even started. "I wanted to invite guys who were unique … I wanted to go in a different angle, more Southern, not French." But as important as it was to Bundy to keep it regional, it was just as important to him to tie the dinner to a hunting trip that he would take with his fellow chefs before the event.
"I wanted to meet them on a different level than we do in the kitchen … I wanted them to enjoy it and didn't want them to come here and just hate it," says Bundy. Traveling out of state to cook isn't always easy, even though chefs prep as much of the food as they can at home and ship it to their destination to be finished on-site. "I wanted guys who might say no [to his invitation to cook at Lemaire], but would say yes if I added a different kind of incentive — something really unique and cool like the experience of the hunt."
Garrelts, the chef from Missouri, grew up hunting. "I enjoy it immensely when I get a chance to do it," he says. What started as one hunting trip in the days before the dinner turned into three, and the chefs ended up at the Curles Neck Hunt Club in Henrico County. "It was a very nice place," Garrelts says of the outdoor equivalent of the Commonwealth Club, if the Commonwealth Club were a little more exclusive. "Just how nice I realized later."
It wasn't a hunter/gatherer kind of meal, however. The James Beard Foundation, named after cookbook author James Beard, participates in events like these to raise money for both the culinary scholarships it grants every year and for the foundation's basic operating costs. This was the first one to be held in Richmond. The foundation's mission to promote food, food culture and the culinary arts is achieved through a combination of events at the James Beard House in New York and throughout the country, scholarships and the prestigious awards it hands out to chefs and cookbook authors each year.
For events outside of the James Beard House, a restaurant submits a proposal and if the foundation agrees, invitations go out, menus are planned and those attending start to salivate. (Tickets for the sold-out event went for $115 for foundation members; $125 for nonmembers.)
I was seated with Fleer's parents, who were actively recruiting fans for the North Carolina chef at the table. "It's your favorite, isn't it?" Fleer's mother asked about the Muscadine-glazed quail with dirty-rice spoon bread. Yes. It was, in fact, my favorite. My other favorites were Bundy's butter-poached Rappahannock River Oysters, as well as Garrelts' slow-roasted Nebraska trout — and I was pretty impressed with the orange clove-braised Border Springs Farm lamb shank ragout that Currence, a New Orleans native who settled in Mississippi, offered for the fourth course.
By dessert, I could barely cram in the soft Valrhona-chocolate "Warm Southern Comfort" Bundy had prepared. It was hard, but the fragrant 10-year old Broadbent Madeira helped it slide down.
By the end of the evening, I think even Fleer's parents were equally in love with all of the chefs. I immediately began to anticipate many James Beard events in Richmond's future. As for the perspective from the kitchen, Bundy says, "This kind of event is so good for my guys — and so invigorating for me. It's inspiring for us all to see chefs that have different talents and a different focus."