Right now — right this second* — a group of devoted foodies is leaving the conservatory of a stately, Federal-style townhouse in New York City’s West Village. They’re moving up to the second floor, into a salon and a library that, combined, form a long, cozy dining room. In each room hangs a single painting — different portraits of the same large man with a big, bald head.
The man with the big, bald head is James Beard, America’s first celebrity chef. The person who, in many ways, made future celebrity chefs possible and whose foundation is responsible for doling out awards that, in our increasingly food-aware culture, are seen as a fast track for chefs to achieve celebrity status.
This is James Beard’s house, or it was, until he died in 1985. Now, it is “the James Beard House,” home of the foundation and 10 to 20 private dinners a month. A place famous chefs and up-and-comers journey to from all over the world to try and impress some of America’s most serious eaters.
Back downstairs, in the famous kitchen, Adam Hegsted — executive chef at the Coeur d’Alene Casino — is conducting his team through the first course, a lakesteamed steelhead dusted with fennel pollen, watercress and cucumber in various forms, served on a bed of edible sand.
Hegsted, a veteran of many such dinners, is nervous. If tonight goes well, his name will become part of a national conversation. Hegsted says he hopes this will also help put our region in that same discussion.
But the nerves aren’t just for the magnitude of the event — although that’s part of it — and they aren’t pre performance anxiety. The diners have already mingled, nibbling on Hegsted’s applewood-grilled quail and coldsmoked Columbia River sturgeon topped with rye creme fraiche and caviar.
Adam Hegsted is nervous because he is always nervous. Every meal he has ever made for people, he says, whether “in New York or at home, or teaching a class of kids at the culinary academy,” feels like this, he says. But Hegsted knows his way around a kitchen and so does his team — a group of close friends and colleagues that includes his brother, Ryan Stoy. Just as important: The ingredients give him a home-field advantage.
When the Beard Foundation asked him to come, they told Hegsted to bring his part of the Northwest. Hegsted did literally that, picking stinging nettles from the golf course at the Coeur d’Alene Resort and fiddlehead ferns from the woods behind the steakhouse. He grabbed last year’s huckleberries and elderberries out of the deep freezer and foraged last week’s rhubarb and wild roses. He brought cheese from Quillisascut and coffee from Roast House.
New York City is one of the greatest food cities in the world.
Hegsted says he could have gotten most of this stuff there, but he didn’t. “I want to be honest with what I’m doing,” he says.
It’s two weeks ago and Hegsted sits at a long, broad dining table in the long, broad dining area of Ts’elusm, the casino’s steak house. At 32, Hegsted still has a boyish face and a smile that cocks itself higher on one side, giving him an air of mischief. He says he relishes the tension of working on multiple levels of food service, and doing them as well as possible. It allows him to pay homage to comfort food — to not just “cook fried chicken, but cook the best fried chicken” — while playing around with people’s perceptions of what comfort food is and how it can be presented.
Hegsted offers comfort while keeping the diner uncomfortable, expecting a fastball while bracing for the curve.
Diners at the Beard dinner get their first sense of this with the Idaho sushi. Hegsted has taken a simple, well-known concept — nigiri-style sushi: a slice of raw meat, usually fish, atop a starch — and used items from the Inland Northwest, trading fish for wagyu beef. The beef is vacuum-cooked super low, so it has the look and texture of raw fish but isn’t. It sits atop what should be a wad of sushi rice but is actually an Idaho spud.
The menu tells diners to expect Japanese food, but what arrives is actually meat and potatoes.
Adam Hegsted talks about how he loves to surprise people — to dazzle them.
More than that, though, he loves to take control of the environment early in a meal and not yield it until after the dessert course. At the Beard House — right this second — Adam Hegsted is taking control.
Diners have sat and the staff has followed closely behind, carrying metal carafes of liquid nitrogen. The centerpieces at each table are designed to look like the shore of a Northwest lake, all pebbles and pine. Concealed underneath is a layer of seaweed, and when the staff pours the liquid nitrogen over the centerpieces, it atomizes the scent of the lake bed into the air.
The steelhead rests on a bed of edible sand — a mix of mashed-up water crackers, bonito flakes, maltodextrin and a little sesame oil to create that “clumpy sand texture.” The sautéed fiddlehead ferns and morel mushrooms sprout out of a pile of edible dirt — dried black olive, rye bread, pine nuts and a little molasses — made to look like the rich, mulchy soil he finds them in. By the time Hegsted downshifts into a sorbet made from pine tea and lime, he is in firm control of the experience.
Still, Hegsted remains nervous. His nerves mix with his fear of failure and become something like adrenaline, a surge that will last until the meal is done. This is also part of the plan. “I like fear a lot,” he says, “I love that feeling. I love knowing that, at the end of the day, you’re either the hero or the asshole. And when you put yourself out there, those are the only two ways it can go.”
Hegsted pauses for a moment and smiles, “I like to be the hero.”
*If you are reading this story a little before 5 pm Pacific time, Saturday, June 2.