Bravotv.com: You obviously interact with legendary chefs all the time, but how was this experience special?
Yes, I’ve had the pleasure and honor to work with many of America’s greatest chefs on James Beard Foundation educational and fundraising projects and to meet even more of these culinary geniuses at our annual James Beard Awards, which are considered the “Grammys” or “Oscars” of the food industry. Just the thought of sharing a table, tasting, and judging alongside the professional palates of Jacques Pepin, Lidia Bastianich, Marcus Samuelson, Wylie Dufresne, and Tom, Padma, and Toby was daunting, fascinating and fun. I could only imagine how nervous and tense the final five Top Chef contenders were feeling no— and I felt sympathy and excitement for them. In most episodes, Padma introduces just one guest chef judge, who is often a James Beard Award winner. But tonight they were facing off before not one, not two but five multiple award-winners or nominees (including Tom), and me, the president of the Foundation. So I think I was feeling not only nervous for me, but also for them!
Bravotv.com: Why did you choose the shrimp scampi as your last meal? What memories does it bring back for you?
When I was asked to pick “my last supper,” my first response was a comfort food: roast chicken, but Lidia had already made that selection. So I decided that if I were on death row, I’d also crave a last meal that would remind me of special times: dining out on romantic occasions (when I was younger and first dating my husband) and family holiday get-togethers. I’ve always loved shrimp, especially garlicky scampi versions. And I love tomatoes (in season, of course!) and especially relish the very country French buttery, garlicky and breaded tomato provencale. I also thought it would be an interesting challenge to see how the top chef contestant would create their version of shrimp scampi: a simple saute with garlic and butter or wine? Would he or she serve it plain, over rice or pasta? Would he or she serve it marinated and broiled (a favorite at-home recipe of mine is from Pierre Franey’s 60-Minute Gourmet cookbook where the shrimp is marinated in lots of garlic, oil, herbs, and bread crumbs and then broiled).
Bravov.com: What did you like about the dish/What didn’t work for you?
Hosea’s scampi was done just right! The shrimp were garlicky without being overwhelming. I would have preferred it if he had served them over rice, not naked, but the flavor was perfect. The tomato provencale lacked the gusto I would have liked in the bread crumb topping, but it was flavorful and satisfying. I truly think he did a good job and even quipped, “I could go to heaven now.”
Bravot.com: Which other dishes stood out to you for better or for worse? Who do you think had the best/the worst?
When I heard that Wylie chose Eggs Benedict, I was surprised and intrigued but knowing he’s famous for his prowess with molecular gastronomy, I figured he had his reasons! The chemistry of cooking an egg just right and getting the hollandaise sauce just perfect is a challenge. Unfortunately, it was a challenge Leah did not meet — especially on the sauce, which was hardly evident. Fabio’s roast chicken rocked and Carla’s squab was succulent. Everyone appreciated the perfectly roasted chicken — from its crispy skin to juicy interior, but his salad side dish disappointed. (One of the judges said it looked and tasted like the salad you get on an airline meal and it was true.) Simply-dressed greens with just a touch of salt, olive oil, lemon, and herbs would have made the whole dish my favorite.) So Carla’s squab and peas dish, which was a last request of Jacques', was probably the best of the the offerings — although I dare say most of us would not choose squab as the last morsel that passes our lips.
Bravotv.com: Tom mentions (when discussing the squab) how old-school chefs like things a different way vs. younger chefs, do you find this to be true? Did you find it true during the dinner?
I was intrigued by the conversation between Tom and Jacques about the squab (was it overdone, underdone?). But honestly, I didn’t see the overall opinions on the five dishes differ between old-school and younger chefs. The discussion all came down to flavor and presentation regardless of their years in the food biz.
Bravotv.com: Can you describe your position at James Beard and some new events that our foodie viewers would like to know about.
As President of the James Beard Foundation, I often say I have the best job in New York and perhaps the nation. Anyone can become a member and enjoy the privileges of discounts to all our special programs. For instance, over 200 days a year, chefs from all over the country come to the late James Beard’s townhouse in Greenwich Village and create their best meal with amazing wine pairings to raise money for our non-profit foundation’s mission to recognize excellence in the culinary arts and educate Americans about all aspects of the food world. Most notably, every year in the spring, the Foundation recognizes the best of the best chefs, cookbook authors, and media in the culinary world at our annual awards ceremony at Lincoln Center. Food lovers everywhere can buy a ticket to attend this red-carpet event. If you love Top Chef, you’ll really love spending an evening watching our awards show and then mingling and tasting at the gala reception that follows. This year, we are celebrating women in food and last year’s first female Top Chef winner, Stephanie Izard, will be joining us. We also help aspiring high-school students and mid-life career changers get a culinary education with our scholarship program. To get more information on all the exciting and meaningful programs we offer, please check out our website at www.jamesbeard.org. Would love to have Top Chef viewers become James Beard Foundation foodies!