I always wondered how and why chefs choose a dish for a grand taste-around event—and how they pull it off at a venue that’s nowhere near their restaurant kitchen. On Monday afternoon, I got to see the process up-close-and-personal, as I observed Chef David Posey, representing the Waldorf Astoria, prep for the 25th annual James Beard Foundation Awards festivities taking place that night at Chicago’s Lyric Opera House. Approximately 1,500 attendees would be descending on the chefs’ tables after a three-hour ceremony honoring the food world’s best restaurants and chefs. They would be ravenous and they would be in combat mode, vying to snare a tasting plate. I know…I’ve been there.
As Posey sweated over giant pots in the small upstairs kitchen of Blackbird, the Chicago restaurant where he worked as sous chef for four years, he filled me in on the logistics. He chose to prepare a riceless celery root risotto—a dish that he created for Blackbird’s menu and had since “taken to the next level,” adding truffles and candied hazelnuts. “You want to put your best foot forward and cook something that represents what you can do as a chef, but you also want it to be easy to execute,” says Posey.
It’s all about doing as much ahead as possible. Posey and two colleagues had spent five hours the night before cutting celery root by hand into tiny rice-shaped kernels. The next morning, they were at the stove at 10 a.m. to make a rice stock from scratch, then cook the celery root “rice” in the stock to the perfect risotto consistency. He and two helpers also prepared a black truffle jus, grated fresh Parmesan and toasted and candied hazelnuts for the plating. Posey planned to spend four hours that day, finishing at 2 p.m.
All these components got packed into tubs and hotel pans to transport by car to the Opera House. Setup was taking place in late afternoon for a taste-around scheduled for 9 p.m. or so. The catering facility at the Opera House was providing serving pieces and other equipment “but you can’t always be sure what will show up,” says Posey. He’s hoping it will be the shallow bowls he requested that will show off his Celery Root Risotto a la Waldorf in the best light. Posey currently is working on opening his own restaurant in Chicago, so he’s bringing his best game to the gala.