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Eat It and Like It

Savannah chef, food shine at James Beard House dinner 10/17/2015 – Original Article

It’s always interesting to see how people react to cross-pollination of regional cuisine.

I don’t think anyone would object to the fact that Chick-fil-A is a “Southern thing.” They certainly do a nice chicken sandwich. A little more than a year ago they moved past KFC as America’s No. 1 fast food chicken spot. Fair enough. They put out a good product. But enough to wait in line for over 30 minutes? Yeah maybe not.

I walked by New York City’s first Chick-fil-A this week and witnessed organized chaos. There was a line around the block. Easily 50-60 people outside in that line. Once they got inside it looked like the turnstiles at the Super Bowl 30 minutes to kickoff. It was crazy. There are probably very few of you reading this that would deal with that insanity for a chicken sandwich. But hey, who are we to place value on something for a New Yorker? We were the ones standing in line for Chipotle when they opened on Victory Drive last year.

Southern food has been a pretty big deal across America for almost a decade now. Some would argue longer than that. Food festivals all over the country are entertaining Southern elements, and there are cookbooks everywhere featuring Southern cuisine. There are Southern chefs winning James Beard Awards, and there is talent being recognized across the South more than ever before. That includes

right here in Savannah. The Grey’s Mashama Bailey has blasted onto the Savannah food scene. She’s gotten more ink than Rick Perry’s run for President (OK, bad example but you get the point).

This week Savannah got another ‘atta boy when Kyle Jacovino, executive chef at The Florence, represented our city at a prestigious dinner at the James Beard House in New York City.

“It’s unbelievable,” Kyle told me before the event. “I have been there before to help another chef I was working with, but never cooked myself.”

For those who don’t know, the Beard House is the former home of James Beard, the man most people credit for making American cuisine a player on a worldwide scale. He passed away in 1985 but a foundation was created in his honor to keep not only his memory alive but also to advance culinary excellence in America. James Beard Awards are the culinary field’s highest honor. An opportunity to be part of a culinary team at the James Beard House in New York City? Half a step below one of those medals.

Thursday night’s dinner was put together by Georgia Grown, the marketing and economic development arm of the Georgia Department of Agriculture. They are less than 4 years old and already have relationships with 700 restaurants statewide. The goal is to promote Georgia products.

This dinner was a perfect example. Everything from the cheese to the coffee to the vodka all was made in the state of Georgia. The team of chefs assembled by Georgia Grown Chef Holly Chute included Jacovino, Jay Swift of 4th and Swift in Atlanta, Savannah Haseler of Twain’s Brewpub in Decatur, and Chrysta Poulos from the Rocket Farms Group.

The products they prepared included pork from Ossabaw Island and beef from Hunter Cattle Co. in Brooklet. The group in attendance from Savannah included myself, Eat It and Like It Co-Founder Senea Crystal, Jan Gourley of Savannah Food and Wine Festival, Diane Rousaikis with United Distributing, and Roberto Leoci of Leoci’s Trattoria.

The menu was, as you might expect at the Beard House, excellent. There was everything from Butternut Squash Agnolotti with Georgia Pecan Streusel, Creame Fraiche to that become very famous Ossabaw Roasted Garlic Sausage with Collards and Turnip Kimchi. Hunter Cattle’s beef was used by Jay Swift for a Beef Tartare Hors D’oeuvre. The dishes were executed perfectly. Some of the pairings included wines, of course, but there was one beer that was more like an orange soda. It’s worth mentioning. It’s called Creature Comfort’s Tropicalia IPA. Loved it.

Chefs get asked to participate in dinners for any number of different causes all the time, but being part of a group that cooks at The Beard House is different. It would be the equivalent of a talented performer at the Savannah Theatre being asked to be part of a one night production on Broadway. Those in the field realize what a big deal it is to be here for an event like this, but they were also extremely proud to promote Georgia’s products on a national stage.

The Beard House itself is fascinating. A beautiful townhouse in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, it looks today like someone still lives here. There were adjustments made in the kitchen obviously to handle large events, but the décor and the courtyard in back would have you think you were enjoying a dinner on Jones Street in downtown Savannah.

The logistics alone would give the average observer a headache. Georgia Grown footed a good bit of the bill, but Delta Airlines got involved to fly all of the products to The Big Apple all in the name of state pride.

The experience, undoubtedly, was unforgettable to these chefs — even those like Beard Award winner and owner of The Florence Hugh Acheson. Hugh, who was in the kitchen assisting Kyle with his course, told me he’d been in that kitchen “seven or eight times.”

This year, half the chefs had cooked there before, and the other half, including Georgia Grown Chef Holly Chute, were at the house for the first time. As she shook hands and posed for photos after dinner was done, she almost seemed relieved. When I asked her if she had been to the house before she said “Oh no, first time. We got here at 9:30 this morning just to make sure everything was right. But that was too much time. Everything was fantastic. We even had time to go to lunch today.”

I wonder if they stood in line at Chick-fil-A?

 

Jesse Blanco’s Eat It and Like It column appears weekly in DO Savannah. Read more at dosavannah.com and eatitandlikeit.com.

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