By Ken Collura
In the fall of 2005, Andina Restaurant in Portland, Oregon, was invited to present a dinner at the James Beard House on Monday, January 23rd, 2006. Andina is owned by a Peruvian/American family. It’s a two-an-a-half-year-old stand-alone restaurant, and is the culmination of a dream that many folks who open ethnic restaurants have: to bring the tradition and culture of their country to America’s diners through their cuisine.
For those of you who don’t know, James Beard was born in Portland, Oregon in the early 1900’s. In his
early years, he wanted to be in the theater, but failing in that endeavor, he turned to a passion he had gained from his family: food and cooking. It became apparent that he had a distinct ability to write and teach about this subject, and was a prolific author, penning over 30 books in his lifetime. He was America’s first cooking celebrity. In 1955, he established the James Beard Cooking School, and continued to teach aspiring chefs until his death in 1985. The James Beard Foundation reprises his inspiration today by inviting restaurants to cook at the James Beard House (where he actually lived) on West 12th Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Being invited to showcase your cuisine at the Beard House is perceived as an honor among restaurateurs.
After accepting the invitation, the owners began to realize the enormity of moving an entire restaurant’s concept 3,000 miles across the country, then condensing this concept into a service lasting three hours. To address the task, a team was formed to go to New York consisting of: the general manager; the chefs (present, consulting, and former chefs asked to join in); the wine director (that’s me); a valuable kitchen employee that knows the food inside-out; and one of the owners, Mama Doris Platt de Rodriguez, who represents the soul of the restaurant.
A representative six-course menu was formulated, highlighting all the unique and diverse flavors that make up Peruvian cuisine. I would call it a combination of indigenous ingredients, which then incorporates Asian (mainly Japanese and Chinese) and European (mainly Italian and French) influences. I got together with wine distributors and two local wineries in Oregon to put together pairings that best matched the food, using wines strictly from Oregon and South America.
In the weeks prior to the dinner, speakerphone calls were exchanged with the event coordinator at the Beard House, the invaluable Sal Rizzo. We learned about what shapes and types of china, flatware and stemware were available to us (which would prove moot when the Beard House changed their flatware purveyor the week before our event); when we could have possession of the kitchen in order to prep (it turned out there was no event on Sunday, which afforded us a full day and a half of prep time); which equipment was onsite, and how much space there was to store our perishables, non-perishables and wine. We watched a virtual tour of the house’s kitchen that is provided on the website, and got the lowdown on how we’d be able to serve up to 100 guests in the tight quarters this old brownstone allots.
Forearmed with the above information, we departed on Saturday night on the midnight red-eye flight out of Portland, which would get into JFK at 8am. Here’s how we then went about putting the dinner together.
After getting to our hotel adjacent to Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village at about 9:30 am, we found out that our rooms couldn’t be occupied until after 3 pm. The luggage dropped, we headed out to Chelsea Market on 9th Avenue and 15th Street. This market has it all; fish, meat, produce, wine, art and the offices of Major League Baseball.
Orders had been made prior for the meat, fish and some of the produce we needed. A setback occurred when the chefs found the wrong kind of limes. We usually work with key limes, and they play an integral part a number of the restaurant’s dishes. Wine guys are window dressing on a food-buying expedition, so since I grew up in Greenwich Village and knew the area, I set off in search of key limes.
It quickly became clear that key limes are tough to locate in January in Manhattan. I scoured the neighborhood, in all the elite shops, and completely struck out. The streetwise New Yorker had to return empty-handed to the group. Luckily, one of the chefs bailed me out, having worked out a deal for a Monday delivery to the Beard House (from the same guy who said he didn’t have any), albeit at a higher price.
We got to the Beard House about 1 pm to set up and prep. Our six course menu called for aji amarillo, aji mirasol, aji panca and rocoto (Peruvian chiles); regular, sweet and purple potatoes, quinoa, corn and fava beans; smoked trout, sea urchin, salmon, scallops, sea bass, octopus, prawns, crab, lobster, halibut and tuna; plus chicken, lamb rack and pork belly. Throw in some lemongrass, coconut milk, tamarind, quail eggs, passionfruit mousse, chocolate sorbet and freshly made quinoa bread and you start to get the picture. This is complex food.
(Ken Collura is the wine director for Andina and the Pearl Wine Shop in Portland, Oregon.)