Last Saturday marked the James Beard Foundation’s 27th annual “Chefs & Champagne,” the Hamptons most glamorous Summer food and wine event, not to mention one of my favorites!
The bucolic bliss of Wölffer Estate Vineyards located in picturesque Sagaponack once again provided the perfect backdrop for this uber-chic culinary fête which featured the cuisine of some of the country’s best Chefs paired with delightful bubbly from Champagne Barons de Rothschild and a selection of Wölffer Estate’s eponymous wines.
Past honorees of this prestigious event have included culinary icons such as Martha Stewart, Bobby Flay and John Besh, and this year’s honoree was no exception. Chef Marcus Samuelsson is a multiple James Beard Award-winning Chef, author, philanthropist and restauranteur who’s been dazzling diners and critics alike with his multicultural cuisine since his arrival in New York City in the early ’90’s.
Born in Ethiopia, Samuelsson and his sister survived a harrowing early childhood and were ultimately adopted into a nurturing Swedish family. His maternal grandmother Helga was the inspiration for his love of cooking, introducing him to ingredients such as lingonberries and blueberries for the first time as a young child.
After studying at the Culinary Institute in Sweden, Samuelsson ultimately landed an apprenticeship at Manhattan’s Aquavit in the early ’90’s. It was here, in 1995 that he became the youngest Chef to ever receive a 3-star restaurant review from the New York Times. Following this distinction, Samuelsson’s career blossomed and, to date, his impressive accomplishments include five James Beard Awards, numerous cookbooks and an array of restaurants which began with Red Rooster in 2010 established in his adopted hometown of Harlem where he currently lives with his wife, model Maya Haile, and young son, Zion.
In addition to opening two more restaurants in Harlem (Ginny’s Supper Club and Streetbird Rotisserie), Samuelsson also currently has restaurant projects in Bermuda, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Chicago and, most recently, London. Samuelsson also devotes a significant amount of time to philanthropic work benefiting charities such as the Three Goats Organization, C-CAP and UNICEF.
I was fortunate to have the chance to speak with the nattily dressed Chef before the big event and get his take on everything from his favorite Summer flavors to figure skating:
Q: Have you been enjoying your time in the Hamptons?
A: “I got here just a couple of days ago. I always love to come out but it’s been such a busy year I haven’t been able to come out that much. Chefs and Champagne is such a great anchor event to link the city Chefs with what’s going on out here so I’m excited to be here.”
Q: What are your favorite Summer flavors?
A: “I was actually cooking with my friend [Chef] Marc Murphy last night and all day we were putting beautiful wild salmon on the grill, lamb chops, eggplant, tomato, corn and zucchini. In the Summer, especially out here, you just want to eat really light and delicious.”
Q: How about a wine or cocktail that feels like ‘Summer’ to you?
A: “Well we’re at Wölffer Estate and they have one of the best rosés you can have so why not that? It’s light, it’s bright and I drink rosé basically from March to October but in Summertime it’s even better.”
Q: What does it mean to be honored at Chefs & Champagne this year?
A: “It’s such a huge honor for me and my team. I look at the success of the foundation and all the young, ambitious Chefs that have aspired to be here and that’s something I hold on to and then pass on to someone else. This idea between mentor & mentee is something the foundation really aspires to and I think successfully achieves.”
Q: Of your many accomplishments, is there one that stands out above them all?
A: “My wife and I were blessed with our son Zion last year and he’s with us here today. So for him to slowly start seeing my world in terms of cooking and I cook with him so he would definitely be number one.”
Q: Your cooking has such a multicultural influence, is there anywhere you’ve traveled recently that’s really inspired you?
A: “We just opened Red Rooster, London and London’s food scene is similar to New York in terms of diversity but just tastes and eats very differently. I think it’s a great food scene, especially Middle Eastern food in London is really delicious, Persian food is fantastic and a couple of the dishes we might not have in New York so much – there’s so much you can see in London and I love that.”
Q: Do you have a favorite culinary quote or words to live by?
A: “My favorite Chef Leah Chase always says, ‘And still I cook.’ No matter what happens around her, ‘And still I cook.’ And I feel that, as a Chef, no matter what crazy turbulence goes on in the world, we can disagree or agree with certain things but when I go back to the kitchen and I’m gonna make you happy, I feel centered, I feel I can do this. We all need that gravity to hold on to and for me, it’s cooking.”
Q: What’s one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
A: [Thinks for a minute and laughs] “Growing up in Sweden with two sisters I did a lot of ice skating. Ballerina ice skating. I was not good at it but there are good pictures that I think might even be in the Internet.”
Another milestone was also being marked at this year’s Chefs & Champagne. It was officially the last for James Beard Foundation President, Susan Ungaro who announced earlier this Summer she would be stepping down after eleven years with the organization.
Ungaro did much for the foundation during her tenure including developing the Chefs & Champagne event into a “party with a purpose.” I had the chance to speak with her about her experience and accomplishments before the event and I look forward to sharing more with you in this month’s “Inspiring Women of Food & Wine” so please stay tuned.
After the interviews, we mixed and mingled with the glamorous crowd sipping Champagne and rosé and sampling all the Chefs’ delectable dishes. Here are my Top 10 Favorites:
1.) Chef George Mendez’s (Aldea & Lupolo, NYC) Chilled Shellfish Broth with Sea Urchin, Melon & Shiso: the layered complexity of the flavorful broth was the perfect vehicle for the textures of the sea urchin, mussels and other shellfish.
2.) Chef Shane McBride’s (Balthazar & Augustine, NYC) Rabbitt Rillettes with Summer Vegetables & Pickles: the rich flavor and texture of the rabbit was balanced nicely by the bright, fresh vegetables and tangy acidity of the pickles.
3.) Chef Oliver Lange’s (Zuma, NYC) Wagyu Beef Tartare with Saikyo Miso Buns & Australian Black Winter Truffles: a decadent bite that featured silky and incredibly flavorful beef tartare beautifully highlighted by paper-thin shavings of fragrant, earthy black truffle.
4.) Chef Todd Richards’ (Richards’ Southern Fried, Atlanta) Lamb Merguez Sausages with Watermelon, Pickled Rind, Shiso & Coffee: this combination is Summer perfection featuring classic sausage and watermelon paired with unexpected textures and flavors of the pickled rind, shiso and coffee.
5.) Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s (Red Rooster, NYC) Jerk Pork Belly with Stone Fruit, Pickled Cabbage & Cornbread Crisp: the master of flavor did it again, creating a truly memorable bite packed with flavor that kept us coming back for more (…and more).
6.) Chef James Ahearn’s (Verde Wine Bar, Deer Park, NY) Foie Gras Torchon with Wagyu Beef Pastrami & Cocuzza Squash: the decadent, creamy texture of the foie gras was complemented beautifully by the flavorful pastrami, squash and crispy, toasted topping.
7.) Chefs Jeffrey McInnis & Janine Booth’s (Root & Bone, NYC; Stiltsville Fish Club, Miami) Shrimp and Grits with Melted Tomatoes, Charred Corn, Pickled Onions & Bacon-Beer Jus: a deliciously complex and flavorful twist on the classic Southern dish!
8.) Chef Brian Cheewing’s (Wolffer Kitchen, Sag Harbour) Chilled Corn Soup with Duck Confit & Black Truffle: Cheewing’s dishes never disappoint, delighting both the eyes and the palate with an incredibly thoughtful and flavorful combination of ingredients.
9.) Pastry Chef Brit Marie Culey (Coquette, Cleveland) Smoked Ohio Peaches Elderflower Crémeux with Champagne Chartogne-Taillet Rosé Aspic. A synergy of deliciousness which takes a classic Summer ingredient and kicks it up five notches with a glamorous French twist!
10.) Pastry Chef Abby Swain’s (Fowler & Wells, NYC) Lemon Posset with Blueberries & Cornmeal Cake: a delightful bite that embodied the essence of Summer with it’s juicy blueberries, creamy posset and toothsome cornmeal cake.
Towards the end of the evening, all participating Chefs gathered in the field behind the event for a group photo. As the Press lined up to get our photos, the mischievous Samuelsson playfully doused us with Barons de Rothschild Champagne. In the photo above you can glimpse his devilish grin right before he made it rain Champagne!
Cheers to the James Beard Foundation on another magical evening and please stay tuned for more information on this “party with a purpose” with the fabulous Susan Ungaro.
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