By Ken Collura
A ringing telephone brought me out of my jetlagged stupor around 9am. One of the chefs was on the line. “Hey Ken, a couple of things have come up and we need 35 more avocados, you know, not too hard and not too ripe, 4 lbs. of tamarind paste, some banana leaves for presentation and at least 100 quail eggs. If you can get those to us ASAP, that would be great. Thanks buddy, bye.”
It took a few moments for this to sink in. We were ten hours away from the door opening for the dinner and we needed product. For some reason, the thought came to me that I could find quail eggs if I went to one of the numerous Asian markets in Chinatown. I grabbed a quick shower and headed to Canal Street.
It was raining, the streets were teeming and in the markets along Canal, Mott and Mulberry Streets the vegetables, fish, meat and birds looked great, but no quail eggs. And guess what? Nobody in these markets speaks English. When I would ask for quail eggs, it was as if I had said, “Doorknob milktoast hobnail earlobe.” This was getting me nowhere. It was nearly noon.
Whole Foods came to my partial rescue. I took the subway up to Union Square and searched out the produce manager. “Yeah, we can give you a case of 48 avocados and throw in a restaurant discount.” Good start. Banana leaves? Quail eggs? No shot, but I found some tamarind paste, scooped up the last five jars and headed back to base-camp.
At the Beard House, Andina’s GM was calling me to say he had found the quail eggs and banana leaves (just in case you ever need them, they were at Citarella on 9th St. and 6th Avenue). The chefs were rocking in unison now, and the small kitchen in the old house was humming with an energy that is only found in fine restaurants. It was a familiar and comforting feeling. At this point, I knew we were going to be fine.
MONDAY EVENING SERVICE
The service staff at the Beard House appeared relaxed, and went about their setup as if on automatic pilot. They had seen it all before, and had probably answered the exact same questions we posed numerous times. Their aloofness actually inspired confidence. Something really interesting happened at lineup (a short conference between managers and staff outlining strategy just before service). Mama Doris, Andina’s owner from Peru, was giving the mostly Latino staff an overview of what the restaurant was about, and how the country’s culture and local products are portrayed in each dish. I saw an attentiveness and respect in their eyes. Her passion and sincerity was indicating that this dinner was destined to be a bit different.
We opened the evening with fresh Pisco Sours, a traditional Peruvian cocktail. We were serving 85 people, including a mix of invited press, board members and Beard House Foundation members, and the public at large. After the crowd was seated, Mama Doris spoke about the food and I had a few moments to talk about the wine pairings. The stage was set.
I honestly believe the people were taken aback by what came to the tables. This sophisticate crowd didn’t really know what to expect from Peruvian food, and its flavorful finesse, matched with the appropriate wines, had caught them off-guard. As I circled among the diners explaining the tastes of each of the wines, one comment after the next confirmed this sort of happy surprise. At evening’s end, after the chefs had taken their well-deserved curtain calls, I was told something by one of the servers that provided a synopsis of the very reasons we were in the building that night. She said, “We normally have three garbage bags of food left over at the end of most meals here. Tonight we have less than one. All the plates were coming back empty.” Pure music. We had hit a home run.
Here is a link to the James Beard House website, where you’ll see the entire menu and the wine pairings served that evening. http://www.jamesbeard.org/events/2006/01/013.shtml
(Ken Collura is the wine director of Andina Restaurant and the Pearl Wine Shop in Portland, Oregon.)