St. Charles Exchange executive chef, Patrick McCandless. (All photos by Steve Coomes)

Patrick McCandless, executive chef at St. Charles Exchange, is amazingly calm discussing the details of his first James Beard House dinner on Feb. 27 in Manhattan.

Cooking on one of America’s grandest stages—though the truth is there is nothing grand at all about the wholly non-descript place—is an event that gives many chefs fits, leaves them biting their nails and claims precious sleep in the days leading up to the dinner.

Not McCandless.

Is the young lad simply naïve about the task before him? Isn’t the pressure of feeding a faction of New York’s culinary cognoscenti and some national magazine reporters bugging him?

And what about cooking in the Beard House’s notoriously cramped and gloomy kitchen? It’s a far cry from St. Charles’ modern, clean and well-lighted space.

“I used to get worried about stuff like that,” McCandless said, his face framed by a confident, but not cocky, grin. “But I’ve done so many offsite caterings in people’s homes where you don’t have much to use, and you adapt. I can almost guarantee I’ve pulled off a bigger dinner with less stuff.”

McCandless is prepping some of the food for the 60-person meal in Louisville, vacuum packing select ingredients, and then trusting it’ll arrive by air on time and in the right place by Feb. 26.

The rest will be prepped onsite beginning at 8 a.m. the next day, when the Beard House staff permits entry—never a moment before. If all goes well, the prepping, cooking and plating will commence without stopping. At about 11 p.m. it’s all over but the cleaning.

“We have to prep some here because there’s just not enough time to start making stuff from scratch the morning of,” McCandless said. He’ll be accompanied by his sous chef, Tyler Powell. Later in the day, a few volunteer culinary students will join the fray. “As long as I know how many we’re feeding, I can make it work.”

St. Charles Exchange bar manager, Colin Shearn, with The Blueprint, a cocktail he’ll serve with dessert at the James Beard House. Photo by Steve Coomes

Bar manager Colin Shearn hasn’t worked at the Beard House either, but some of his peers around the country have told him what to expect.

“One friend described the bartending area as a card table with a tablecloth,” Shearn said.

Other bartenders are luckier, such as Varanese bar manager Rory McAlister. When he and his boss, John Varanese, when to Greenwich village for Varanese’s dinner, the city was blessed with a rare 75-degree day in March. That meant he got to use the bar space outside in the Beard House’s courtyard. That Shearn won’t have such luck in late February doesn’t bother him. He’s just happy to make the trip.

“I think it’s a big deal for anyone to go there whether you’re a chef or a bartender,” Shearn said. “It’s also a sign of cocktails becoming more a part of the general meal.”

To complement McCandless’s hors d’oeuvre and five courses, Shearn will craft four cocktails and pair three wines.

That’s busy, but he’s got a plan to simplify the process, such as not using cocktails requiring highly perishable citrus juice or other labor-intense preparations.

“My rule of thumb in bartending is if it’s all clear ingredients, you mix it, stir it and go,” Shearn said. “I’m going to be batching ingredients the day before at a friend’s bar in Brooklyn to hopefully ease execution. I’ll pour it over ice, say about 10 at a time that night to stay ahead. It’s going to be some hustle.”

Seared salmon and sunchoke puree, third course for the Beard House dinner.

The menu:

  • Hors d’oeuvre: Hot Brown deviled eggs; Peppadew pimento cheese; Broadbent’s Country Ham; pickled onion; Kentucky burgoo.
  • Cocktails: New Day Rising (bourbon, Cointreau, Blanc vermouth and bitters) and Rant In ‘Em (bourbon, rum, apple, thistle, peach, Swedish punsch and gentian)
  • First course: southern crawfish ragout, Weisenberger grits, Broadbent’s Country Ham crisp and mache, paired with Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc + Viognier 2011
  • Second course: Chestnut trio, creamy spatzle, brittle, velouté, paired with Close Pegase Chardonnay 2009
  • Third course: pan-seared Scottish salmon, sunchoke purée, rainbow chard, fried salsify, maple and Bourbon Barrel Soy glaze, paired with Born Fighter (bourbon, Amontillado, sherry, Pineau des Charentes and artichoke)
  • Fourth course: Kentucky bison strip loin, confit fingerling potatoes, candied Brussels sprouts, Bourbon Barrel Kentuckyaki jus, paired with Orin Swift Saldo Zinfandel 2009
  • Fifth course: Buffalo Trace bourbon pecan bread pudding, macerated fruit compote, Chantilly cream and butterscotch, paired with The Blueprint (Byrrh, demerara syrup and bitters).

Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.

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