For decades, the quaint black-trimmed brownstone at 167 West 12th Street in the heart of Greenwich Village has been quite the happy, famous little place.
The concept behind its present incarnation as James Beard House was the inspiration of Julia Child, who, shortly after Beard’s death in 1985, wanted to preserve it as the place of good food and convivial times that it was when her good friend was alive.
But as renowned as it has been, both during his life and after, what we know as James Beard House today was actually his fifth home in the Village.
The first was a small studio apartment where he had to do the dishes in a tiny sink or in the bathtub with the shower turned on. It also had a gas stove, which he hated.
In Beard’s third house, on 10th Street, he set up his first teaching kitchen, organized around a U-shaped centre of electric burners and work surfaces he called his "grand piano". This was the source of the famous over-sized black and white pineapples, a wallpaper motif that came to be emblematic of him.
When this place became too small, James moved to the comfortable West 12th brownstone with its lovely garden and patio out back, complete with outdoor shower, and its unique mirror-walled bathrooms. Here he set up his favourite all-electric kitchen in another U-shape, with world maps all over the walls, presiding over his cooking classes from a high canvas director’s chair.
It’s in this small but famous kitchen, albeit one that’s been a bit updated, that a crew from Top Table Restaurants – Araxi in Whistler and CinCin, West and Blue Water Café in Vancouver – will prepare a meal carefully planned to showcase B.C. ingredients and cooking style for 75 lucky guests.
The snapper and salmon sushi, the green sea urchin in ponzu sauce, the braised short ribs with crones and purple sunchokes and beautiful black and white orca beans from Jordan Sturdy’s and Helmers’ farms in Pemberton – all is in keeping with the James Beard Foundation and the spirit of the master himself.
"They endorse contemporary thinking and new ideas that move the whole industry forward," says Andrew Richardson, executive chef at Araxi.
"He (Beard) supported talent – people in the industry who have the drive and vision to always be looking forward. He was a great role model for those types."
This isn’t the first time Top Table has been invited to cook there, and that rather compounds the honour of it all.
For to be asked to cook at Beard House means you’re brushing shoulders with the likes of Emeril Lagasse or Charlie Trotter of the five-star Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. And out in the front of the house you may find any assortment of wine professionals, journalists, cookbook authors, and other members of the James Beard Foundation.
"The house is testament to his life’s work. It has such a huge reputation throughout the culinary world. I mean, I’m from Europe and I’ve known of it," says Richardson, who calls the opportunity to cook there the highlight of his career.
Despite the illustrious clientele and chefs, the atmosphere is comfy. First, guests must walk through the kitchen before proceeding upstairs to the cozy dining areas, replete with fireplace, shelves of Beard’s old books, funkily painted walls and a portrait of the master himself presiding over all. Plus it’s common for them to mill around the kitchen after the meal.
"You do feel like you’re eating in a house, not a restaurant – there’s kind of a nice vibe in there. It is upscale with the chefs and the talent, but at the same time it’s unpretentious and very comfortable," says James Walt, a former executive chef at Araxi who’s just finished a stint at the Canadian embassy in Rome.
Since he was part of the Top Table visits to Beard house in 1998 and 2002, Walt is handling logistics this time around. Given they want to use truly local ingredients as much as possible, the details are endless – getting the raw beef certified, packing seafood and other perishables in coolers, blanching and vacuum-sealing root vegetables like the crones, so there is no possibility of contamination from soil.
It’s all in the name of bringing New Yorkers a true slice of B.C.’s finest – a gentle irony, as Beard grew up in the Pacific Northwest.