Carolina class

I had been warned that the James Beard Awards Gala in New York was a mob scene, but no one mentioned that potbellied pigs would be in attendance. As I joined the hordes on May 9 in the post-awards crawl through the area outside Avery Fisher Hall where nearly 60 tables of food and drink from restaurants across the country sat, there they were. In black tie, of course. Those were working pigs, promoting WhistlePig Whiskey.

Before diving into the cocktails, food and milling thousands, I had the privilege of seeing Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, N.C. honored as an American Classic – and viewing chef Bill Smith resplendent in an Alexander Julian tux with Carolina Blue jacket lining. (A surprise gift from Julian, who also designed the Tar Heels’ basketball uniforms.) That was appropriate, since comedian and Cooking Channel show host Mo Rocca said Crook’s was a place where UNC and Duke fans can come together. Rocca obviously hasn’t spent much time here during basketball season – I fear that not even Smith’s wonderful shrimp and grits or honeysuckle sorbet could accomplish a detente. In a classy touch, Smith thanked his Hispanic cooks in Spanish.

North Carolina really brought the class to the awards, with Andrea Reusing, chef of Lantern in Chapel Hill, going home with Best Chef: Southeast honors.

But what y’all want to know is what I ate, right? One standout for me was from Rachel Yang of Joule in Seattle: A combination of buttery smoked walu (also known as escolar) with a fennel and bean paste. A simple combination that showed how the good stuff works together was thinly sliced Spanish ham topped with American caviar from Jose Andres of Washington, D.C. Andy Ricker, chef of Pok Pok in Portland, Ore., fresh off his Best Chef: Northwest win, was sending out cubes of rice cakes in pumpkin and melon flavors. And perhaps because of the excesses around me, salmon sushi from Sushi Zen of New York hit a soothing spot as I was on my way to cocktails.

I am always surprised at how many random people have connections to North Carolina. I met bartenders serving powerful vodka martinis, PR folks smiling and handing out business cards, restaurateurs – all with some connection to the Tar Heel State.

If you want all the awards, visit here.


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