Chef Jennifer Boye and Elm Street Bakery at Beard House
Sunflower Soup with Saffron Crème Fraîche and Sunflower Seed Za’atar
Photos by Nancy J. Parisi
Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts! —James Beard
Cocoa-dusted lamb with a side of chocolate-infused caponata, chocolate pasta under a Bolognese sauce, and a luscious trio of bonbons earned notice and acclaim for chef Jennifer Boye and sous-chef Dan Borelli at the Nickel City Chef competition in March of this year. (Chocolate was the signature ingredient for this particular NCC.)
One of the judges that day, Izabela Wojcik, asked the pair “When are you going to do a dinner at Beard House; I like what you did.” Wojcik is director of house programming at James Beard House, located on West 12th Street in Manhattan, and she kept in touch. Finally, after careful coordinating of the calendars of Elm Street Bakery, where Boye and Borelli work, and Beard House, Wojnik was able to program “Autumn in Upstate,” a dinner with wine pairings for ninety diners on October 2.
James Beard House, named for American chef, culinary teacher, and local-sourcing pioneer James Beard, hosts approximately 200 dinners annually prepared by guest chefs from all over the world. Diners sit throughout the mid-nineteenth-century rowhouse, even in Beard’s cozy sleeping nook (complete with mirrored ceiling). Proceeds from the dinners defray operating costs of the house and its kitchen, fund culinary scholarships, and support educational conferences about American cuisine. (More information is available at jamesbeard.org.)
On the Monday afternoon one week before the Beard House dinner, Elm Street Bakery is closed to the public, but bustling with activity as Boye and the rest of the team prep for the dinner. David Murphy bangs molds on a counter to loosen chocolates filled with passion fruit purée; he comes by a little later with some divine samples, perfect twist-shaped treats. These will be boxed with a chocolate cherry cordial and given to each guest along with some of Elm Street Bakery’s own roasted coffee as favors.
About the process of landing in the Beard House kitchen Boyes says, “Izabela gave us a series of dates that were available. After you are confirmed, you go through a series of steps, such as submitting your menu along with wine pairings about three months out. And you need to keep Izabela in the know if there are any changes. But before all of this starts, you have to find out if you can get funding. JBH does not fund this; they’re a not-for-profit.
“Our owners Kim and Jay DePerno were generous enough to bankroll a large portion of this, and generous purveyors and farmers donated some of their products. I’ll start with the wine first. Mark Strassel (of Verity Wine Partners) donated wines for us along with Jonathan Oakes from Leonard Oakes Estate Winery. Others were Rick Criden from Schneider Seafood, Thorpe’s Organic Family Farm, Vertical Fresh Farm, Fenton’s Produce, Root Down Farm, and Plato Dale Farm in Curriers.
“We made the menu around the October date, which made sense for the business—avoiding the summer rush. We liked the aspect of the date falling on the cusp of summer and fall so that everything is not squash and kale. We can still take advantage of corn and tomatoes, especially with our heat wave this summer. And then we wanted summer flavors: strawberries and blueberries.”
The team—Boye, Borelli, Murphy, Joe Brace, and Griffin Smith—arrived a few days ahead of the Monday night dinner, taking the opportunity to dine around the city before the work began. Boye notes that the departures for the dinner were staggered so as not to under-staff Elm Street Bakery for those days. Elm Street owner Jay DePerno drove a van filled with provisions to Manhattan a day ahead of the dinner. The team had been undecided about whether it was best to transport the housemade rose ice cream for the dessert (served atop blueberry cake with a pistachio cookie on the side) or make it onsite. It was determined that making it at Beard House was the way to go.
Union Square Market, renowned for its ample seasonal offerings from downstate farms, was also on the team’s agenda; Boye comments, “We ordered some salsify and cucamelons ahead of time, and we need to get flowers for the tables, herbs, and edible flowers that don’t travel so well—and anything else that catches our eye. A huge part of what we do includes the quality of bread we serve, so I’m glad that we get to showcase a lot of bread in our courses.”
Does James Beard House assist the teams on the night of their dinner? “They don’t leave you in the lurch; they do remind you of timing throughout so you don’t get hung up on anything. And they let you know about the pace of the dinner so that you know whether to hurry up or wait,” Boye says. On the day and during dinner, JBH also provides extra hands to assist.
At the dinner, which began with cocktails and passed hors d’oeuvres served in the rowhouse’s courtyard beneath the branches of a very old birch tree, it was apparent that there were several attendees from Buffalo. In addition to Kim and Jay DePerno were family members of the Elm Street Bakery team, including Boye’s parents, celebrating their forty-sixth wedding anniversary. Wine rep Mark Strassel was at Table 5 (where this writer was seated, next to my friend Heather Sacks Low, who purchased the dinner for my early birthday gift), along with a couple celebrating a birthday.
One of the dinner’s triumphs was the starter, sunflower soup with saffron crème fraiche sprinkled with sunflower seed za’atar: Borelli deconstructed sunflowers to roast them, the resulting flavor resembling earthy artichokes.
During dessert, Boye and team came into the second floor dining rooms (where two large portraits of James Beard smile down beatifically) to thank everyone for coming and to receive a certificate—and high praise—from Wojcik. It should be noted that several people logged on to the Beard House’s live stream to watch the kitchen action.
And what did chef and team do after dinner? “Celebrate with a glass of champagne,” answers Boye. “I sent a text to everyone at Elm Street to thank them for holding down the fort so that they realize that their hard work is appreciated.” When asked about the reaction of her customers, friends, and family to the honor of being featured at JBH, Boye says, “Everyone is really, really excited for us. People in this area are so happy with what is going on in Western New York right now, and they are always so quick to be supportive. This is a great opportunity to let other cities hear about our food scene; it’s a way to do it on a national platform.”
The Autumn in Upstate Menu
Petite Lamb Sausages with Harissa on Butter-Egg Buns
Rutabaga Blini with Caviar
Gin-Soaked Salmon with Caraway Onions on Vollkornbrot Bread
(Wine: Jean-Baptiste Adam Les Natures Cremant d'Alsace Brut NV)
Sunflower Soup with Saffron Crème Fraîche and Sunflower Seed Za’atar
(Wine: Red Newt Cellars Tango Oaks Vineyard Riesling 2013)
Celery Leaf Salad with Lemon Balm, Strawberry Confit, Tomatoes, Ricotta, and Tomato Vine Vinegar
(Wine: Michel Chapoutier Les Vignes de Bila-Haut Rosé 2016)
Short Rib Caramelle with Lobster Butter and Creamed Sweet Corn
(Wine: Tenute Bonincontro Melovivo Frappato 2015)
Beef Rib-Eye Cap with Salsify, Pickles, Sauce Gribiche, and Elm Street Bakery Baguette
(Wine: Nostre Pais Costieres de Nimes 2014)
Blueberry Cake with Pistachio Cookie and Rose Ice Cream
(Wine: Leonard Oakes Estate Winery Botrytis Affected Sparkling Riesling 2015)
Nancy J. Parisi a a frequent contributor to Buffalo Spree.