Let me tell you about the time my dreams came true…
I’ve been asked by Fossil Farms to be a part of their Wild About Game dinner at the James Beard House in New York City. “Every chef I’ve studied, every chef that has influenced my career, has cooked in this kitchen. This can’t be real.” Then I get the email confirming. I was sitting on my couch next to my son Ayden when I opened it and I burst into tears.
(Before I go on, let me clear something up. I’m not up for any sort of nomination, but that’s not the point. )
Anyway, I responded immediately that I wanted to do the dessert course. I totally blacked out from excitement. Who in their right mind would choose the dessert course for a wild game dinner?? Me. But I’ll get to that later. For the next few days, I couldn’t even form a sentence without welling up. This is everything to me. I mean, Thomas Keller, Eric Ripert, Charlie Trotter, Grant Achatz, Dan Barber…they have all cooked in the exact spot I would be standing in. Me. Who the fuck was I to step into such a sacred place? A sanctuary of culinary Gods. I work at a country club for Christ’s sake. I don’t even have my own restaurant (which hopefully will one day change. That’s #1 on the bucket list, if you’ve been following my literary journey). What can I cook at the esteemed haunt? How could I compete with the talent that was going to be at this dinner? Who was actually even going to be there?! I needed to do wine pairings for the event. Great. Here we go with the recovering alcoholic bullshit again. How could I possibly pair wine with dishes for the most important event of my career at this point, if I couldn’t taste it? How could I possibly put MY name on something I could not taste?
Cue my old way of thinking. “I’m out. I’m not doing the dinner. I can’t possibly go forward with this under these circumstances,” I tell a few close friends. “I’m going to email them and tell them I simply cannot do it.” Fear sets in. Depression.
These same friends slowly talk me into doing it more and more each day. It was the witching hour. They needed me to email my menu. My wine. I’d been jerking off the poor people from Fossil Farms, who were putting their faith in some “unknown Country club chef”, all while they were giving me the biggest opportunity of my career. I grabbed my balls and called a few close friends. I explained my fears. Being in recovery, and the wine tasting issue. I asked for help. I was living in the solution. I emailed my menu and that was that. I kept the descriptions vague because I still had no idea what I was going to do. I was in the middle of the busiest month in club history, and I was very short staffed. I barely had time to nap for 7 straight weeks!
Wanting to always share my work, and early on to protect my privacy after being on Hell’s Kitchen, I created a Chef page for myself. Over time it began to grow. I worked on it alone. Posting food, and sometimes recipes. Food related topics. From this, I began to meet people from all around the world. I started to discover different chef pages. I even started an Instagram page which I thought I’d never do (My Instagram. Shameless, I’m aware). Over time, I started to follow more and more pages. This was perfect. A way to share my work with the world. This was fascinating to me because I’ve worked in a private setting for so long. My desire has always been to share my food with everyone, and I’ve not been able to do that, so I thought this would be the perfect venue. I could share my work in Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Suddenly my social media began to spin out of control. I was a slave to it. Helping administrate on several pages. Getting hundreds of notifications every day. Dealing with high school bullshit drama. It started to distract me terribly from my work. Then one day, Facebook changed their algorithm. Suddenly, I couldn’t share my work. Nobody would see it. (Before I continue, I’d like to set one fucking thing straight right now. I don’t post things for likes. Likes don’t pay my bills. I post my dishes to maybe inspire someone. I post what I’m going through in recovery to maybe give someone hope. If someone likes a dish I made, or something I share about recovery, that’s fantastic. So if I clog up your feed with all my food and recovery posts and you don’t like it, hit the block button and keep walking. I couldn’t give a fuck less. )
Anyway, suddenly, if I wanted people to see my food posts, I had to pay money to reach an audience. What bullshit. How could they do that?? I guess they do what they want. It’s social media. One day, after my second article started to steamroll, I decided to drink the kool-aid. I spent ten dollars to share my “Rock Bottom” article from my chef page. 400 likes. 200 comments. Over 30,000 people reached. This was awesome. I bared my soul in this article. Maybe it would help someone!!! I’m elated.
Then one day, it was deleted from my page. Gone. I paid 10 dollars of hard earned money, just like they asked, and they fucking deleted it. You want to take my money and fuck me, well then fuck you. I’m over it. Page scheduled for deletion in 14 days. Trust me when I tell you, my timing was calculated.
James Beard House. What the hell was I going to do for dessert for a wild game dinner? Haven’t even given it a thought. Nothing. No clue. I’ve been way to busy with work and thinking about backing out. In my head, I wasn’t even doing the dinner anymore. But now I had no choice. I shot around several ideas. What could I do so that every single person in that sold out dining room from every walk of life could connect with? What a challenge. I thought long about it, and 4 days before the event it hit me. Legos. Everybody has played with legos. This was either brilliant, or it would ruin me. Let’s take a luxurious item like foie gras and make legos out of it for a dinner at The James Beard House. What could go wrong? Personally, I’m a big fan of irony, and this screamed it. Plus, my goal was to not only to please people culinarily and visually, but to spark emotion. I wanted that plate to drop and have the entire dining room go silent. I wanted everyone to be confused. I wanted them to stop and think about what was happening and ultimately, I wanted to make everyone reflect back on being a kid and smile.
Game day. I wake up at 6:00am. Coffee. Front porch. James fucking Beard House tonight. Smoke. Another smoke. I start breakfast and wake up my son Ayden for school. I start the shower for him and get his school clothes together. I’m still teaching him how to tie his tie, but he’s close. He almost has it down. That brief part of the morning is special to me because my father taught me how to tie my first tie. Now I get to do that with my son. As I tie it, I think to myself about how much I wished my father could see me right now. From a loaded gun in my mouth, to the Beard House. I know, though, that he is looking down. Ayden finished his shower and got dressed. I take a couple things to my car and when I walk back in, Ayden was crying hysterically. Total meltdown. Gasping for air. The next day was his birthday. I asked what was wrong, and after 25 minutes he finally muttered, ”Dad, could we hang out for a little bit before your dinner tonight, because if not, I won’t get to see you until next week.” More hysterical crying. I slumped against the wall, holding him tight. What was I doing? Was my drive starting to affect my children? Was he just upset because he sat by my side while I opened the email? Maybe he assumed I would take him, because I always take him with me. TV, radio, demo’s, work….always. But I couldn’t this time. I totally deflated. We talked for a while and I drove him to school. He cried the entire way there as I held his hand. I normally drop him off, but walked him in this time. After he went in, I spoke to the principal and explained the situation. He promised to keep an eye on him. Fuck. I took a very quiet drive to work, trying to absorb what just happened. I couldn’t even speak. I get to work and meet my team of mercenaries. Gangsters. My crew. The people who sacrifice just as much as me for the sake of our craft. We pack up the car and head to New York City.
I cannot explain what it felt like to walk in to the House. Silence all around. Walking through the foyer, you enter it. There she was. Smooth wood counter tops. Stainless. A full line. Smallwares hanging from the extraction unit. Photos of food older that me. World maps. Relics of the past. I ran my hand slowly on every counter top. I was here. Still not believing it. I turned every single dial and knob on every piece of equipment so I could be that much closer to the chef’s who helped shaped my career. “I wonder if Charlie Trotter turned this burner on,” I thought. “Maybe Thomas or Grant used this ladle.” I put my hands on everything. My crew, and some dear friends along for dinner, stood back and let me soak it all in. Not a word was muttered. I looked up with tears in my eyes and saw everyone looking at me. I gathered myself quick and opened up some dialog to break the silence. We then took a slow walk up into the dining room. There it was. So beautiful. Legendary. Pictures of James Beard adorning every wall. What appeared to be an old library of his, containing maybe 1000 cook books, now part of the dining room. This was his home. He lived, taught, cooked and helped shape cuisine as we know it today here. A picture of him with Julia Child. His chef coat enclosed in glass. This is insane. More tears. Happy tears. Proud tears. I look over and see a very special woman beaming with pride. I was given a ticket for the event because of my participation, so I asked the one woman in my life that’s stuck by my side through all the terrible moments, some joyful ones, and a few others I probably won’t mention- my mom. I asked my mom to come to the most important dinner of my life. I wanted her to see what all the years of sacrifice, no holidays, and no birthdays had yielded. Both my parents were with me this night.
We unpack the car and get all our mise sorted, and we leave. We were 95 percent prepped in. So we went bopping around the city. We hailed a cab and went to Momofuko for some ramen and steam buns. I excused myself to call Ayden to see how he was doing. We talked about his day and he seemed to be in much better spirits. He asked if I had done the dinner yet and I told him it was a bit later. I explained that he and his brother Maxwell were the reason I WORKED SO HARD. To give them a good life. I told him that I was going to do my best and that this dinner was for him. We got off the phone and I went back in to finish my ramen. There was some light conversation, and a friend went into her purse for something and out came my father’s prayer card from his funeral service. He was there and he wanted to let me know. I grew quiet but didn’t get upset. Everybody I loved was there for my big day. We depart and take a cab back to the JBF house. Now it’s just my team and me. We find out when they need us back and then go grab a coffee. A quiet stroll through the park to reflect on the evening, and a quick stop into an art gallery to look at some Banksy prints. We start to make our way back to the house. With each step my nerves became worse.
We get there and the kitchen is full of chefs. Everyone looks at us like we are late. Little do they know we are prepped in solid as fucking granite. We get our whites, and I’m told I have a jacket set aside for me. I open the package and have a look. My name stitched across the breast. This was nice, but I don’t do names and titles on jackets anymore. I’m passed that stage. What caught my eye was the left sleeve. The JBF logo was stitched onto it. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t stick out my chest a little bit.We start to gather our tools and equipment. There was no room to prep. Maybe being slightly cocky and showing up a little late didn’t really pay off. There wasn’t a square inch to set up and work. You couldn’t fight another person in this kitchen if they were lubed with a Peruvian bold unfiltered olive oil. Place was tight!!! We get briefed on the course of events and I get ready for pre-meal with the staff. I go over my dishes thoroughly, but leave some minor details out. Five minutes until canapes. Cool. We start pumping out some amazing braised oxtail over a wild mushroom duxelle topped with Cape gooseberries. The tart shell was a lemon-thyme & pepper corn dough. Super flaky. I was really proud of my team for creating this dish. They are 100% responsible for its production. I was just the guy who typed it via email in a state of panic a month earlier. I took a few off the passing tray and started handing them to the other chefs to try, confident in my team. My chefs mentioned later that they were in shock I was handing them out and exhaled deeply after the other chefs gave their nod of approval. I tried the other chefs offerings. Pheasant breast and mousse wrapped in savoy cabbage with a truffle vinaigrette. Rabbit Wellington to die for. Foie pate, tostadas de venada, truffled quail eggs with boar bacon. The list goes on. Everything was outstanding. Now I knew dessert was going to make or break us. These guys came to cook. I was impressed with the different styles and flavors everyone produced with wild game. “First course in fifteen minutes!” the porter yelled out. My team and I meet each other’s eyes from across the kitchen and nod to each other. Here we fucking go. Simultaneously, we all move to random positions without a spoken word. This was old hat for us. It’s just another banquet. We go right into our element. Helping assemble the first course. Wiping plates. Quality checking each dish for the chef. It’s a different style then we are used to. Only a few plates at a time. Fuck me, 3 of us plate 280-person weddings with 4 entrée choices, so our system is a bit different. Better? Maybe not. Just different. It’s just after 7pm, and they want dessert by 10. 3 hours to go. Second course, then third. Lamb then emu. Both fantastic. I keep staring at the clock. 4th course- squab with porcini infused dauphinoio… remarkable. Next up is wild boar with a puree of winter squash and brussel sprouts. We clear that course and I take a very deep breath. I start to visualize our course. Someone asked me how many steps there were and I muttered 13 or 14. He stared wide eyed. 14 steps for the dessert; 90 plates. You can figure out the math on your own. Plates drop for the venison course and I excuse myself from helping plate. Understood by all, as we are next. I stare at my team often during this course. Nothing but furrowed brows and nods back. No smiling. We were all business. These country folk, in the James Beard House, surrounded by such talent, from a country club none-the-less, were going to steal this show, or at least we hoped to. I’m not sure what happened, but as I was going over the dish for the thousandth time in my head, it hit me. I screamed “fuck” in my head so loud it may have been audible. I swear others looked at me. After I scraped my blown out heart up off the walls and floors, I walked over to my team and whispered,” We need to wipe every single plate dry. As they temper from the cooler, the condensation will destroy the design of our sauce!! I’m pulling the plates now.” So I did just that. Right in the middle of the 6th course, I began to weave through servers and diving into the cooler to yank our plates out. If I hadn’t thought of that single detail, our night would have been over. Done. The plate would have been a mess. The last of the plates go out and we immediately switch into mode. A familiar one. The three of us like a Swiss watch. We don’t even need to speak to each other. We just know what to do. We’ve gone over every detail. Every step. We even went as far as to pick a certain plate when we got there so we could plate all 90 at the same time. It was the only way this dish would work. Plates down. Foie gras for dessert. Nobody has any clue what we are about to pull off. I grab the caviar dropper and the sour cherry sauce. This dropper is used to make fruit caviars and such. It’s fashioned to make 96 droplets at a time. Quite clever really, but I had other plans you see. I was going to use it like a stamp. (6 little sour cherry dots on the plate in 2 seconds time. As I start to stamp the plates, it catches everyone’s attention in the kitchen. I ask for a follow with a damp towel in case any of it drips out of place. Anything less than perfect is…well, unacceptable.
I get through about 30 plates and my sous, Erika, starts to lay down the chocolate soil, a combination of cocoa powder, flower, sugar and butter, baked in the oven until crisp. Looks like dirt, or soil. No kidding. Nice and bitter. This would provide the texture to our dish. A nice crunch. A quick correction to the placement and amount of soil, and we are flying, Half way through the plates I yell, “Eric, grab the foie lego’s from the freezer!” Now normally I wouldn’t call him by name, but had I bellowed “chef”, 13 people would have turned around. He slides through the sea of people, staring at what we were doing, and I reiterate quickly how I want them to be laid on the plate. Cruising right along. A chef gloves up and jumps in to help. Then another. Eric watches sternly to make sure each plate meets my expectations. With this many hands on each step, we have to be keen. I yell for the sour cherry lego men and dried flower & citrus soft chocolates. I give exact instructions as to where they are to be placed. I overhear Erika give someone a reprimand for misplacing some of the items. This was my team. Stern. Serious. Methodical.
Out come three different types Koppertcress of micro green. First, the dolce buttons. Their vanilla & citrusy mint perfume enhance the plate. Some red-veined sorrel for some acidic punch, and finally, some micro tangerine that just drives those citrus notes home. I look at my watch. 7 minutes have passed. I know I need at least two and a half more minutes of the foie parfait to soften through to the core so they can be sent. Any less, and the dining room would be eating an ice pop. I knew it was exactly nine and a half minutes from freezer to perfect because I plated the dish several times before the event, timing it to perfection each time. We near the end of the plates and I intensely tell the dining room captain the exact order in which they are to be taken out. We finish the last dish. By this time every single chef has jumped in to help, and I also notice several plain clothed people standing in the kitchen watching us plate up. “Ok, GO! Start here…stay in perfect order!”
Just like that, it was over. The dinner was over, and we just hammered out very difficult dessert. There was a lot of chatter about it and I finally exhaled and smiled. I quickly whip up 3 extra plates because I want the other chefs to try this dish. Deep down, I needed the approval of my peers. “So, do you ever do savory dishes?” asks one of the chefs. I laugh and tell him I’m not a pastry chef. We don’t have one at the club, so we all work together. Time to get announced. We get whisked into 2 small dining rooms. I’m met with some questions about the dessert. I was pleased to have the opportunity to explain why I made fucking lego’s for a James Beard House event. Then we go to the main dining room. We walk in single file. Me last, just like the dessert course. I look into the room and lock eyes with a couple dear friends who came to support us for the event. They begin to announce each chef and their course, and then they announce me. The dining room erupted with applause and I slightly blacked out. It worked!! People went crazy over the dessert!! I scanned the room and found my mom. She was crying. Proud of her son. I nearly lost my composure. I couldn’t have day dreamed a better scenario. It was more than I expected.
Lots of photos were taken and we received a certificate for our work at the James Beard House with our names on it. In the end, it seemed that a ballsy idea really worked. People had taken their phones out. People were smiling and laughing. We managed to take something as beautiful as foie gras, and create a dish that everybody in that dining room could relate to, and it turned out near perfect.
So I set my sights on making a career long dream come true. And it did. I suppose it’s time to set some new goals, and dream up some bigger dreams…
For now, I’m still floating from this dream. I did it. I did it for my sons. I absolutely did it.
Happy Birthday, Ayden! Shot of Langdon broadcasting a fathers love on the JBH kitchen cam.
For more on Chef Michael Langdon, visit his profile.