Local chef takes talent on road to serve elite palates in New York Dinner of Distinction

THE BALTIMORE SUN

New York -- It's a glorious late-summer morning in Greenwich Village, the sky a slice of pure blue above the buildings, a gentle breeze blowing, temperatures that require a jacket. On West 12th Street, a khaki-colored Trooper swings up to the door of No. 167, and the driver and two passengers leap out and begin unloading: two huge stock pots, two wooden crates of corn, a box of tomatoes, cases of wine, two plastic containers filled with pecan caramel tarts.

Thus provisioned, and armed with the tools of their trade -- comfortable shoes, leather kits of personal knives and implements -- the three descend to the kitchen of the James Beard House, where they will prepare dinner for nearly 100 people that evening.

The chef is Nancy Longo, chef-owner of Pierpoint in Fells Point. At the invitation of the James Beard Foundation, which maintains the house as a memorial to the late chef, Ms. Longo will be cooking for a discriminating set of food professionals and other "foodies."

The Beard invitation is considered an honor for the chefs, who come from as far away as Bora Bora, French Polynesia, Hawaii, Oregon and Texas, and as near as down the street to show off their cooking skills. Ms. Longo was invited at the behest of Gary Cheong, a New York stockbroker who is one of a dozen Beard House program coordinators. He discovered Pierpoint on business trips to Baltimore, and thought she would be a popular guest chef.

The events, scheduled for most weekday nights and for Friday lunches, give diners a chance to sample a region's cuisine or to meet a rising star like Ms. Longo.

Richard Cernak, owner of Obrycki's in Baltimore, was at the Beard House last summer cooking steamed crabs and other dishes. "The people who go there are quite sophisticated" about food, he says, and the dinners let them sample cuisines from chefs across the country. But he considers the trip a chance to educate others about Baltimore and the Chesapeake region.

"It's always fun to take your crab cakes on the road," Ms. Longo will later tell a guest who asks why she comes so far, hauling food, to cook for strangers. For her, the most important part of the event is to help support the house so Mr. Beard's beloved culinary spirit will live on. Diners pay $40 to $75 for a meal, while chefs receive only partial reimbursement for the cost of the food they make. "I believe in that place," Ms. Longo says.

For her event, Ms. Longo has assembled a team of friends, staff and former staff, five in all, to help her with a menu that shows off such Maryland specialties as soft-shell crab and crab cakes, Silver Queen corn, biscuits, homemade rabbit sausage, venison from Easton and rockfish from the bay.

At 10:55 a.m., Ms. Longo and two of her assistants, Marty Cosgrove (who works for New Orleans Chef Paul Prudhomme's Magic Seasoning Blends and is on his way back from a biscuit festival in Milwaukee) and Gerardo Gonzales (a former Pierpoint cook now at Harbor Court's Hampton's) are standing in the conservatory. "We're like checking things out," she says.

"You want to start shucking the corn?" Mr. Cosgrove asks. He and Mr. Gonzalez were both students of Ms. Longo's when she was teaching at the Baltimore International Culinary College. He grins at her. "Who would have thought?"

"I thought we'd get a little bit of stuff done, then we'd go shopping," Ms. Longo says. A minute later, she has a piece of paper and is making a list. They've brought the basics of the dinner with them -- crab cakes, venison, duck, rockfish, tomatoes and corn, a box of soft-shell crabs -- but they need staples and garnishes.

Mr. Gonzalez has begun roasting the corn, putting it right on the burners of one of the kitchen's two gas stoves. The kitchen fills with the noise of popping, hissing corn, and with its nutty aroma. "I love the smell of it," Mr. Gonzalez says.

"You want it darker on the outside," Ms. Longo tells him. "It's really good because it has a nice toasty taste, but the inside is still really crunchy."

When the corn is roasted, it's piled back into the shallow trays, and the crew gets ready to head to Balducci's, the upscale specialty food store where well-heeled Manhattanites can buy fresh Washington state blackberries, five different kinds of eggplant, squash the size of a baby's finger, or linguine dyed black with squid ink. You can even pick up something called a "pitahaya," which the sign says "is a sweet fruit." It's about the size of a mango, but a startling pink with odd chartreuse flaps -- $4.98 each. Mr. Gonzalez can't resist, and pops one in the cart.

They buy bundles of fresh herbs to garnish platters of appetizers, and boxes of tiny tomatoes -- smaller than a marble, $3.98 a box -- to garnish mesclun greens with corn-fried canvasback duck. Ms. Longo picks up baguettes and -- "We need a snack" -- loaves of sourdough onion bread and prosciutto bread. A quick visit to the Jefferson Street Market nets flour and cider vinegar -- along with Cheshire and Stilton cheeses to go with the bread from Balducci's.

"This thing starts at 6? 7?" Mr. Gonzalez asks as the crew strolls back to the Beard House.

"Seven," Ms. Longo says. "Getting nervous?"

"Nah," he says. "Plenty of time."

Back in the kitchen, Mr. Cosgrove and Mr. Gonzalez begin cutting the corn kernels off the cob. There is no sign yet of the extra crew members coming up from Baltimore with the rest of the provisions. "I'm beginning to get a little worried," Ms. Longo -- says.

The guys finish the corn and start peeling the garlic for the rouille, a spicy Provencal sauce often served with bouillabaisse.

"What's next?" Mr. Gonzalez asks at 1:45.

"Biscuits and herb garnishes," Ms. Longo says, setting out the snack of bread and cheese.

At 1:56, the door buzzer sounds and the reinforcements finally arrive -- Tom Giannini, a friend who was teaching at the Institute of Notre Dame high school when Ms. Longo was a student there, Clay Pinson (sous chef at Pierpoint and, like Mr. Cosgrove, a Louisianian) and Steve Glab, a line cook at Pierpoint and Ms. Longo's nephew.

Mr. Pinson, who's on his first visit to the Big Apple, gazes around the kitchen. "Look at all the copper."

The house is maintained largely as Mr. Beard, who died in 1985, left it. It continues his mission of culinary education with dinners, lunches, teaching sessions and travel for members and guests.

"It's sort of odd," Ms. Longo says, of cooking in Mr. Beard's kitchen. "You can definitely feel his presence."

Among items arriving with the new crew is the praline ice cream, and it quickly becomes something of a problem: There's no place in the kitchen cold enough to keep it frozen. But a solution lies just across the street, in the freezers of the St. Vincent Hospital and Medical Center.

By 2:15, the pace is beginning to pick up. Mr. Gonzalez is peeling more garlic, Ms. Longo and Mr. Pinyon are starting the crab stock. Mr. Cosgrove is stirring together the biscuit ingredients in a huge stainless steel bowl. Ms. Longo sears duck breasts at the back stove, then the long rolls of rabbit sausage. Mr. Giannini is carefully trimming the venison and cutting it paper-thin.

At 4:30 p.m., the house's maitre d', David Goldstein, arrives. "You are sold out big time," he tells Ms. Longo, and gives her a guest count of 80. "The wait staff will pick up the first order about 10 to 8," he tells her. "Figure 10 minutes between courses."

Within minutes Mr. Goldstein returns, announcing that some diners will be seated in the boardroom on the fourth floor, taking the guest count to 90.

From this point on, the kitchen teems with people. The Beard House wait staff have been drifting in, setting up tables, polishing glasses and opening wines. Mr. Pinson starts slicing the grilled molasses chicken, while Mr. Cosgrove spreads pecan mayonnaise on his baked biscuits. Mr. Gonzales is portioning rockfish. Ms. Longo and Mr. Pinson begin assembling the venison and garlic toast appetizers.

By 6:30, Mr. Goldstein has set up a podium in the reception area, where he will check off guests' names as they arrive, and direct them to the conservatory and terrace at the back of the house for wine and hors d'oeuvres. That means every guest will pass through the kitchen.

Within 20 minutes, guests are arriving. Some are old hands and pour eagerly into the kitchen, greeting the cooks and asking what they're doing. Some, clearly on their first visit to the house, seem startled to be in the middle of the flurry of preparation and hasten past, not speaking. "What is that?" many ask, on spying the pitahaya sitting on the counter.

"Your count is 88," Mr. Goldstein tells Ms. Longo, who is sauteeing soft-shell crabs. At the last minute, she has decided not to use the tempura batter. ("It's really complicated," she says later, "and I was afraid they wouldn't stay crisp.")

At 8 p.m., the entire crew is working on the first course, soft-shell crab and crab cake with toasted Silver Queen corn. Plates cover the working surface and each person is frantically performing one part of the assembly. It is a complicated dish -- a mound of corn salad in the center of the plate, a slice of tomato leaning against it just so, a ladle of vinaigrette across the middle, then a sprinkling of chives, a crab cake placed next to the corn and a soft-shell crab "at 6 o'clock," Ms. Longo tells them. The maitre d' is hovering and the waiters are lined up.

The pressure is intense and it shows: One plate gets two crab cakes and no soft-shell, waiters are grabbing plates before they're garnished. Ms. Longo jumps in. "Wait a minute," she says, sternly, "slow down. You're getting sloppy."

A collective breath is taken and things proceed at a pace that is only slightly less headlong.

By the second course, the salad with duck, Ms. Longo's crew is in shape. They have counted out plates in groups, and they have evolved a more orderly system for getting each item on the plate -- including exactly three of the teeny tomatoes, which they fret won't stay where they put them. After that, the courses go out in the same controlled frenzy, a state Mr. Pinson earlier called "organized pandemonium."

Suddenly it's 10:30, and it's all over.

The last plate has been served and the guests are relaxing over wine. Ms. Longo is given a brief introduction in the main dining room and answers questions for guests. Later, back in Baltimore, Ms. Longo assesses the evening. "It came out really well," she says. "We even had a lot of good comments about the appetizers, which is something people usually forget."

And, while most everything went smoothly, she says, there were a couple of small problems. The hospital was reluctant to part with the ice cream and the quail eggs got left off the duck course -- "after my poor nephew spent an hour and a half peeling them," Ms. Longo lamented.

She made up a tray with the eggs and put it by the door. "Some people were having us wrap them up in little doggie bags, but some people were just popping them in their mouths as they went out."

And the exceedingly pink pitahaya, what happened to that?

"Oh," Ms. Longo says, "we used it as garnish on a special at the restaurant last weekend."

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