A Night Unlike Any Other—Sort of
Surreal as the James Beard dinner was at turns, there were, thankfully, lots of normal touchstones, too, to ground our chef on the biggest night of his career.
By Alan Heckman
I met my crew at the inn at seven the morning of the dinner. We packed everything the night before, so it was just a matter of loading the cars and then double-, triple- and quadruple-checking it all. Three hours later, we were pulling up to the James Beard House.
By 11, we’d unloaded the cars, checked into the hotel and were tying on our aprons back in the kitchen. I made a list of everything that still needed to be prepped and then a timeline for the next 10 hours. I wanted all of the prepping done by two and everything organized by course in the refrigerators. The most labor-intensive task ahead of us was making the chocolate and yuzu cremeux. Jeff’s young, but he could make cremeux in his sleep. I didn’t need to worry about him, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t worried about the cremeux. Sure enough, a box of baking soda was accidentally tipped over on one of the trays. Plenty to spare was suddenly just enough. But that was our only real hiccup. We even had some time to break for lunch and wander the neighborhood some.
Around 4:30 p.m., the maître d’ came looking for me to perform a couple rites of passage: sign a copy of the menu and the chef’s jacket that’s exhibited on the second floor. The jacket’s refreshed every few weeks, and at the end of the year, they’re auctioned off. The weight of the moment sunk in a little deeper as I signed next to Jonathan Benno’s signature. Think of the jackets like the footballs signed by the winning Super Bowl teams. Among the tens of signatures, there are a few stars that will become legends, some rising studs on the cusp of breaking through and a bunch of others for whom this was the pinnacle of their otherwise anonymous careers. Every one of them, though, could count themselves among the precious minority privileged to call himself a Super Bowl champion.
Back in the kitchen, I walked my crew through the hors d’ oeuvres, and the night seemed to slip into fifth gear. The next time I glanced up at the clock, it was six. Time to deliver the lineup to the service staff. I ran through the courses and thanked everyone for helping to pull off what was becoming a night that would never fade from my mind.
The nerves and this out-of-body sense I’d been experiencing to some degree all day evaporated the moment we started assembling the hors d’ oeuvres. I have a tendency to set very serious in the heat of the moment. My focus sharpens and, at the same time, I can anticipate the next few steps. That broke temporarily when my family walked into the kitchen. The rest of the guests filled in behind them. There was a guy among them who took up a post by the far wall and studied us closely. His face was familiar, but I couldn’t place it. And then I did: Mark Teixeira. Holy shit. It was the first baseman for the New York Yankees.
Just before eight, we started plating the first course. This is where all the preparation is felt most acutely. The course needs to be plated 80 times in 10 minutes. Repeat five times. Everybody had one responsibility for each dish, save for my sous chef, who I asked to get a head start on the next course.
The dinner was done in two hours, more of a sprint, really, than a marathon. I toasted my crew back in the kitchen as the guests lingered out in the dining room. Much as this was a milestone night for me, it wasn’t anything that a chef, no matter how talented he or she is, could ever pull off on his own. I made it to this moment because of the people standing around me with their glasses raised. And with that, we were off into the night, celebrating into the wee hours, a desperately needed release after a week-plus of mounting tension.
I’ll be serving the tasting menu from my James Beard dinner at the Stockton Inn throughout March.
A Frantic Homestretch
As if cooking dinner at the James Beard House wasn’t pressure enough, Jonas intervenes.
By Alan Heckman
With three weeks left before the dinner, I’d confirmed delivery of all of the ingredients. The wine order was still a work in progress because some were more difficult to get ahold of than I expected. There was plenty of time, but it still ate at me. At the restaurant, I could always call an audible, but this dinner’s different. Nothing can be left to chance. By the end of the week, I managed to finally secure one of the wines I planned to serve. A bright spot to end the week on, at least. The second wine’s confirmed the next week. Four to go.
Two weeks out, I was pretty sure I was on the cusp of a heart attack. Three of the wines weren’t available. I’ll look for another year of the same vintage, I thought. Each state has its own wine purveyors, and they’re allocated certain amounts by the wineries and importers. So, basically, I needed to pray that the wine I wanted wasn’t already spoken for. It was. Panic. A week out and I had to come up with three new wines. But this time, instead of telling the purveyors what I wanted, I worked off their lists of what was available. It’s not ideal, but it was a relatively easy fix. By the end of the day, all six wines were ordered and scheduled to be delivered to the Beard House 24 hours ahead of the dinner.
From there, I turned my anxiety to the weather. I needed to see clear skies across my 10-day forecast. Even a random flurry between now and the dinner would wreak havoc on my delivery schedule.
And then Jonas descended. Monday, 8 a.m., three days until the dinner, the first call comes. “Chef, our trucks can’t get out. We should be able to get to you tomorrow.” That was my veal cheeks and venison. Veal cheeks take a solid five hours of prep, so I was nervous, but still in the game. Somehow, the produce arrived on time. So did the seafood—but with the wrong shrimp. I put the order in a month ago. The purveyor apologized, said he could get a new batch to me by Thursday. Ugh. “Send me the same size shrimp, but for half the price for the hassle,” I said. It was worth a shot.
The veal cheeks and venison came at 2 p.m. Tuesday. Two days to go. But it’s only half of what I ordered. Back on the phone. “No later than 8 a.m. tomorrow,” I said. We still managed to get a lot of the prepping done Tuesday. And at 10 the next morning, the rest of the cheeks and venison surfaced. The cheeks are frozen, though. Naturally.
It was 45 in the kitchen. And the water was running about 38 degrees. Trying to thaw the cheeks was like watching ice cream melt in a freezer. I started to pray. Again. We finished the prepping, at least. Finally, around 6, about 24 hours until the dinner, I began to braise the cheeks. They’d take close to four hours. In the meantime, we loaded up the coolers.
I climbed into bed around 11:30 that night, knowing that sleep wasn’t going to come. My mind was retracing the last couple days and bracing for tomorrow. And then the alarm was sounding.
It’s Real Now
By Alan Heckman
It feels like it was just yesterday that I was invited to cook at the James Beard House. In case you’re wondering who James Beard is, a quick primer: He’s considered the father of the American dining renaissance. Most of us grew up watching Julia Child, but Beard’s was actually the first cooking show on TV. The foundation that bears his name today is based in New York City, in Beard’s former home, and, as part of its mission to support forward cooking, it invites star chefs, rising and established, from all over the country to cook dinner for some of the leading tastemakers in the industry. My turn comes in a little over two weeks, and, as you can imagine, it’s an incredible honor. Not only is it a big notch on the ol’ CV, it’s also a way to support my community. (The dinners help generate funding for the foundation’s scholarship and educational programming.)
The magnitude of all this didn’t really hit me until I broke the news to my wife and watched the excitement spread across her face. Just that fast, the floodgates broke open in me. What will I cook? What if nobody likes it? (My family will be there, so at least they’ll tell me they did. I hope.) The kitchen is notoriously small. How am I going to pull this off? I didn’t sleep an hour that night, as my thoughts careened between pure elation and anxiety.
When I woke, I started prioritizing. First thing I needed to do was lock down the menu. I knew, at least, that I wanted to showcase everything that’s had a significant impact on how I think about and work with food. That helped a lot. From there, I submitted my menu to the foundation (you can view it here), and it replied with all the necessary prep details, which brought a slight sense of relief.
Still, one big question loomed: How small, exactly, is this kitchen? I’d been warned a bunch of times over to brace myself for the worst. And for this to be a success, I really need to cook this dinner in my head as often as I can, which means being able to visualize where each component of every dish is going to be prepared. So, I decided to scope it out for myself.
From the outside, it’s a modest-looking four-story rowhome (if such a thing exists in New York). The event coordinator greeted me and led me around. As we came around the corner to the kitchen, I felt like a game show contestant who was about to find out what was behind the door I picked. There it was at last—several blinks and pans of the room—the very kitchen that James Beard cooked in for more than a quarter century. I laughed to myself at the sight of the low ceiling and Styrofoam-padded hood vent, imagining all the great chefs who’ve scraped and knocked their heads against them. It’s not the smallest kitchen I will have ever cooked in, but it’ll be tight.
Methodically, I inspected everything from the plates to the equipment. This experience up until that point felt surreal. But that started to change with every new thing I touched.
[divider]Your Backstage Pass[/divider]
Watch Alan and his team cook the biggest dinner of his career on January 28. The James Beard Foundation will be live-streaming from the kitchen here. Three different angles will be available. Given the tight confines, every last crumb should be covered.
Photo credit: Courtesy the Stockton Inn
Alan Heckman Has Arrived
As he prepares to cook the biggest meal of his career, let us introduce you to the Stockton Inn chef.
In Alan Heckman’s kitchen, there’s always a large pot or two filled with a scratch-made sauce that requires a few days of simmering and constant monitoring. His old-school methodology and the subtle depth that comes out of it have become the foundation in the resurrection of the Stockton Inn in the Central Jersey riverside town.
Heckman cuts an imposing figure, but his baby face immediately undermines any potential threat. Physically, he’s 30 going on 18. Even though he’s not that long out of culinary school, his mentality is pure Thomas Keller. He’s a stickler for a spotless restaurant, he cooks on the line every night and he talks about having needed to pay his dues before he finally became an executive chef—at 24.
Straight out of school, Heckman stepped into one of the most revered kitchens in the country, Canlis, a Seattle restaurant established in 1950 and run today by the founder’s grandsons. He left there appreciating the gravity of maintaining tradition.
An extensive trip through Europe and Northern Africa brought him back to the literal beginning: food as sustenance. Heckman watched wide-eyed as a woman slapped dough against the sides of an in-ground tandoori oven outside of her modest home in Tunisia, the inside of her arms scarred from the daily ritual.
Back home in Connecticut, or as close to one as he’s ever had (he’s a Navy brat), Heckman made up for lost time, pulling double-duty as the morning prep cook at Craftsteak and sous chef at a small, modern-American restaurant. Overnight, he was introduced to the business of cooking—the ordering, the scheduling.
Around this time last year, the Stockton Inn was searching for its identity. Heckman, fresh off of four years heading up The Washington Crossing Inn, was beginning to come into his own. Together, they’ve managed to draw the attention of kingmakers. Back in the fall, Heckman was invited to serve as the featured chef for a night later this month at The James Beard House, in New York City. He started right in on sketching his menu. It’ll trace his own maturation—the tradition, the humility, the poise.
Over the coming weeks, Heckman will journal his preparations for the dinner and its aftermath here, from his thought process and the sourcing to his anxiety (or lack thereof) and the swell of reflections that’s bound to come standing on the cusp of a landmark moment. Then you can say you knew him before he blew up. —Scott Edwards