From the Bistro to the Beard

Austinite Shawn Cirkiel makes a pilgrimage to the home of American gastronomy

Shawn Cirkiel
Shawn Cirkiel (Photo By John Anderson)

When the legendary James Beard was building his reputation as the dean of American cooking, he lived in a four-story brownstone at 167 W. 12th in New York City's Greenwich Village. In that house, Beard wrote the newspaper columns and cookbooks, threw the famous parties, and taught the countless cooking classes that influenced two generations of American home cooks and professional chefs. After Beard's death, his dear friends Julia Child and the late Peter Kump convened an elite group of chefs, restaurateurs, and other food industry players to form the James Beard Foundation as a commemoration and continuance of Beard's contribution to American gastronomy. The Foundation raised funds to purchase and restore the historic Greenwich Village brownstone and now makes its home there, fulfilling the mission to "keep alive the philosophy, practices and ideals that earned James Beard his reputation as a pioneer in American gastronomy, a generous mentor to new talent, a vital resource to professionals, and an advocate of innovation and high standards in the field of cooking."

Every year, the James Beard House hosts luncheons, brunches, dinners, wine tastings, and workshops showcasing the top culinary talent in America. An invitation to cook there signals a certain level of achievement in a chef's career and over the past decade, more than 1,000 chefs have been presented. Beard House events are attended by Beard foundation members, food-savvy New Yorkers, friends and supporters of the featured restaurants, as well as representatives of the food media. Presenting at the Beard House gives chefs from across the country the opportunity to cook on the national stage for an evening, raising their own and their restaurant's national profile. On Monday, Aug. 26, Shawn Cirkiel, the CIA-trained chef/owner of Jean-Luc's Bistro in Austin, will make his pilgrimage to New York City to cook at the James Beard House.

The August trip won't be Cirkiel's first visit to the Beard House, but it will be his first time as a chef representing his own restaurant. Previously, he assisted his former employers chef Cal Stamenov of the Bernardus Lodge in Carmel, Calif., and chef Robert Curry of California's Domaine Chandon Winery, during the presentation of their dinners. Cirkiel had known since those visits that he wanted to return under his own banner someday, and began the process of submitting his work for consideration about a year ago. His invitation call came soon after the first of this year. In addition to generating national attention for himself and Austin restaurants in general, Cirkiel explains that his desire to appear at the Beard House was born of the realization that "doing a dinner there is one of the few things that's purely about being part of the industry, and it connects you to a certain national community of chefs."


How Choices Are Made

Beard Foundation Program Director Mildred Amico and a 20-person selection committee made up of food and wine industry professionals and public relations representatives (no chefs or restaurateurs) meet about every six weeks to consider candidates for presentation at the Beard House. Chefs who are interested in appearing submit press kits, menus, and event ideas for consideration, while some others are presented by food industry sponsors. According to Amico, it's important that all areas of the country are represented and that a percentage of new and relatively unknown young talent is featured every year, along with more established and famous chefs whose names can immediately pack the house.

The foundation provides the house facilities, a maitre d', and experienced service staff. It also promotes the event in its monthly calendar and newsletter, takes reservations, and supplies each chef with a food allowance of up to $15 per person. The visiting chefs are responsible for transportation and lodging expenses for themselves and their staff, the balance of the food costs, and securing a wine or spirits partner to sponsor beverage costs. The house can accommodate 90 to 100 guests, and prices for the dinners range from $85 to $110, depending on the fame of the chef who is cooking. Though it isn't necessary for a chef to be a member of the Beard Foundation to appear there, each chef who cooks there receives a complimentary one-year membership and a listing in the foundation's annual Restaurant Directory.


What It's Like

"As soon as you tell someone who has already been that you're going to cook at the Beard House, invariably the first thing they ask is if you've seen the kitchen," Shawn Cirkiel says with a rueful grin. Though the kitchen has had some improvements since Beard himself cooked there, it remains a small home kitchen with a home-style electric stove and home-sized appliances. There's no commercial range, no large, heavy-duty mixer, no walk-in cooler, and limited storage space, creating a logistical challenge for visiting cooks. "My appetizer was a duck and black bean napoleon on little fried tortillas," recalls the Shoreline's Dan Haverty, "and I didn't realize there was no deep fryer. Kevin Williamson happened to be in New York when we were and he got in a cab, took the tortillas to TriBeCa Grill and fried them there, grabbed another cab and brought them back to me. Working there was heaven and hell." The small kitchen happens to be situated between the front door and the dining rooms, so as guests arrive, they pass right through the kitchen during the last frantic minutes of preparation time before the meal is served, according to Fonda San Miguel chef Miguel Ravago. "People stop and chat, asking questions about what you're making. Meeting them is fun, but it's pretty distracting."

Because he's already worked at the Beard House, Shawn Cirkiel and his crew anticipate few surprises. They're pre-prepping as much as possible before they depart, leaving as few items as they can for finishing "ô la minute" in the Beard kitchen. Their foodstuffs will be Cryovac-sealed and carefully packed for air-shipping at the restaurant on Sunday, and they plan to carry their trusty White Mountain ice cream freezer on the plane. They've made arrangements to store the comestibles in the walk-in coolers at the exclusive W Hotel on Lexington Avenue when they arrive, and that kitchen will be available to them if unforeseen emergencies arise. The W now offers special rates to out-of-town chefs who are cooking at the Beard House, so Cirkiel and his team of pastry chef Philip Speer and Cassidy Naughtin will be staying there as well. Shawn enlisted the support of three wineries for his dinner, and though wholesale suppliers vary in different regions of the country, he's taking it on faith that the necessary wines will all be in house when he arrives in New York.

Cirkiel is particularly proud of the menu that he'll be cooking in New York. For his personal debut on the New York culinary stage, he's offering a menu that features items he actually serves in his restaurant, either as regular menu items or dinner specials. Leaving nothing to chance, Cirkiel and company will prepare and serve a run-through dinner at Jean-Luc's Bistro (705 Colorado, 494-0033) on Tuesday, Aug. 13. The cost is $109 per person, and reservations are required. "We want to make sure we've got all the kinks worked out while we can still correct any problems, and we'd also like for our clientele to have the opportunity to enjoy the same dinner paired with all the wines that we'll be serving in New York," said Cirkiel. The Bistro will close for a couple of weeks, beginning Aug. 18, providing the staff time to prepare for the Beard dinner, take a vacation, and do a little remodeling work on the restaurant itself before re-opening the day after Labor Day. Shawn Cirkiel is saving the Beard Foundation newsletter that lists his dinner and plans to frame it for display in the newly remodeled bistro. The young chef is obviously very excited about his pilgrimage to the residence of the legendary James Beard. "This man was the father of American cuisine, or at least the man who really defined it, and I'm going to cook in his kitchen. I can't wait." end story


For more information about the James Beard House dinners or to join the James Beard Foundation, write to the James Beard Foundation, 167 W. 12th St., New York, New York 10011, or call 212/675-4984 or 800/362-3273. You can also e-mail info@jamesbeard.org, or visit www.jamesbeard.org.

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