Last week I experienced a meal like I’ve never experienced. A meal fit for James Beard, or more correctly, a meal fit for the James Beard House. For those who don’t know anything about the man himself, James Beard is probably best described by Julia Child, “Beard was the quintessential American cook. Well-educated and well-traveled during his eighty-two years, he was familiar with many cuisines but he remained fundamentally American. He was a big man, over six feet tall, with a big belly, and huge hands. An endearing and always lively teacher, he loved people, loved his work, loved gossip, loved to eat, loved a good time”. In other words, James Beard made had a huge culinary impact in the 20th century; and in our age of the celebrity chefs, the honour to cook for the James Beard House is a big notch on the resume.
Chef Chris Mills, who was the man behind this meal, currently resides as the Corporate Chef for the Joey Restaurant family. Don’t let the chain name fool you though; Chef Mills started his professional career at The Fairmont Chateau Whistler, before moving on to the Metropolitan Hotel in Vancouver. Having now been with the Joey’s group since 2000, Chef Mills has already cooked for the James Beard House (2006), competed in the Bocuse d’Or (2001) and participated as one of just two Canadians to compete on the original Iron Chef Japan series. Not bad eh!
As you can imagine, being asked to cook for a second time at the Beard house allows you to build on your first experience; which is what brought Sarah and I to the table. Not taking this situation lightly, Chef Mills, along with his hand-picked staff, will be recreating the entire meal in each major centre that Joey’s operates in. Starting with Edmonton, a select few will also experience this evening in Calgary, Vancouver, Seattle, & Toronto, before the team flies to New York on November 17th, for their meal on November 20th.
With a section of Joey Mayfield set aside for the lucky diners, Sarah and I arrived to a very warm welcome and a glass of wine. While taking in the space, we chatted with Britt, Joey’s Director of Marketing, who filled us in on all the details for the night, as well as some stories about the experience to this point. As a food lover, I couldlisten to these stories for hours. With more people to talk with than just us, we were soon left to mingle with our fellow guests.
The menu for the night, which was billed as marriage of Asian and North American influences, was designed by Chef Mills to celebrate the Pacific Rim. Welearned that many elements of the night’s meal were in fact ‘foraged’ by the chef himself. From the matsutake mushrooms that were collected from Chef Mills secret mountainside spot, to the lavender which was grown on his own rooftop garden to the Spring salmon caught off BC’s coast. Getting hungry yet? I know Sarah and I were at this point..where were those darn appetizers. Oh here they come!
Peaches & Cream Chicken ‘Corndog’. Japanese Hummus. Chicken Tacos. Pacific Tuna Chopsticks. All were bold and quite distinct from each other. The tuna chopsticks and chicken tacos proved to be our favourites. Both plates just seemed to zing with flavour and punch us in the awesome gland. The corndog (with hot mustard or curry raisin relish) was more of a mixed bag as the initial selection was deep-fried perfectly, while subsequent offerings seemed to spend a few minutes too long basking in oil. The Japanese hummus (wasabi and edamame puree) was a grand idea, and a fun play on the chickpea version.
Getting our queue to sit, Sarah and I were positioned right beside the infinity pool. And let me say, I haven’t met anyone since our visit that knew of this gorgeous space. Private functions anyone! First course – Citrus-Cured Haida Gwaii Salmon with Dungeness Crab Flan & Cornbread. Arriving on a long plate, the entire selection was perfect. The cured salmon was firm, fresh and absolutely grand. The crab was moist, and sat atop a buttery rich flan; to cut some of the richness, Sarah and I scooped it on to our selection of breads like butter. Heaven. The potato foam puree, with frisée and salmon roe was also delicious; I’m a sucker for large fish eggs that pop in your mouth.
The second course was Smoked Alaskan Black Cod, BBQ Pork Belly & Squash Dumpling in a Matsutake Mushroom Broth. I had a hunch about how this plate would arrive, and I was happy to be right. Our serving bowl arrived stacked with food, and was finished with broth table side. The sudden warmth and aroma hit us like a ton of bricks. I hadn’t even tasted the food and I was already enjoying it. The squash dumpling, aka ravioli, balanced perfectly in the broth. The black cod was cooked to perfection; medium, juicy, and sweet. The pork belly…well that was a complete failure. It lacked any luxurious texture I’ve come to expect, and reminded me of the pork chops I ate as a kid (not a good thing). Below the ravioli was a cabbage slaw that seemed so acidic that I couldn’t capture the essence of why it was there. As well, we were served a small serving dish of mushrooms and broccollini to help us ‘feel like we were eating dim sum’.
As we waited for our next course, we were brought a small palate cleanser; frisée apple and toasted pecan salad. Strange as it sounds, the sweetness from the apple, combined with the nuts and a hint of celery (there was some very thinly sliced), brought me back to my childhood. This tasted exactly like ants on a log. Obviously the items wouldn’t creat this combination on their own, but get the right bite and BAM, ants on a log.
Course number four rolled out after a well-timed break – Licorice Lacquered Duck Breast, Summer Cherry Conserve, with a Hazelnut-Crusted Korean Duck Roll. The cherries were plump and sweet. The duck breast was, again, cooked perfectly, and gave just the slightest hint of licorice. It was a little too backdropish though, as I don’t think Sarah even picked up the profile. The duck roll was fun, with a fatty pastry giving away to a moist interior. It reminded me of the average bbq pork bun on steriods. Delicious!
If there was a wall, I think this would be about the time, but like an good eater I turned off the switch and listened to the description of my next plate – 45 Day-aged Beef Rib Eye with Yukon Gold Potato, Braised Oxtail & Black Trumpet Mushroom Lasagna & Bellman Carrots. 45 Day! Oxtail! This menu just kept getting better. The beef was rare, and sat on the plate with the jus of all jus’s, along with a spinach puree. The ‘lasagna’ was actually thin slices of potato, which we both enjoyed, while the oxtail embarrassed the mushrooms in to submission; they just couldn’t compete no matter how loud they blew their trumpets.
Vietnamese Banana Cake with Passionfruit & Banana Salsa & Toasted Coconut Ice Cream was our final course of the night. The plate included an absolutely superb muffin sized cake, which was so moist in the middle it almost seemed under baked. The passionfruit and banana salsa turned out to be kiwi and banana. Asking Chef Mills about the change, he mentioned his new vision is to incorporate a mixed fruit salsa now instead; regardless, it was sweet and vibrant with a touch of passionfruit sauce. Even though I know it’s real, the coconut ice cream left me with a fake feeling, while the toasted coconut disc was the exact opposite. We were also told, a larger version of this dessert will soon be available at Joey Restaurants…do go try it!
As Sarah and I sat back and sipped on coffee, the kitchen delivered a final touch to finish the night; a tiny little pastry stuff with a blackberry and finished with crème anglaise. As warm and pleasant as it was, I think I was ready to burst at the seems. Chef Mills brought his team out while we relaxed, and talked about the experience, his team, and his goals. You can tell that his love of good food is alive and well, and I know that if our night was any sign of the future, it’ll be just fine. Well done sir. Thank you for the taste!