A very lucky crowd of Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) members trekked from all across the South to partake of Saturday night's Charleston Beard Boys dinner, starring our local triumvirate of James Beard Award winners: Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill, Mike Lata of FIG, and Sean Brock of Husk and McCrady's.
The SFA's master of ceremonies, Mike "Rathead" Riley, charmed everyone in the room with his grateful appreciation for not only the chefs, who eagerly agreed to cook the dinner, but for the diners who eagerly bid as high as they could to win a seat. Sealed bids were accepted at the SFA's auction at Blackberry Farm last January. Rathead wouldn't disclose the amount raised, but he did tell us that this Beard Boys dinner brought in more than the entire lot garnered in the SFA's first auction. Must have been a pretty penny.
In addition to the local talent, Julian Van Winkle of the Old Rip Van Winkle distillery — another Beard Award winner — was in attendance with a very special bottling of bourbon that he touchingly shared with the crowd. But I'm getting ahead of myself. That bottle wasn't drunk until the end.
Let's start at the beginning. After Rathead's opening toast, we were treated to a stunningly beautiful bowl from Brock. A couple of plump and pristine clams from Dave Belanger were artfully arranged among flowers, shoots, and herbs as the waiters poured a clear, salty broth at table. A fresh and clean beginning to the six-course meal.
Next, Mike Lata sent out a covered Creuset pot that revealed a delicious coddled egg amid a frothy swirl of parsnips, mushrooms, red wine, and parmesan. Some toast points came with, but I was able to clean my pot without the need of a sopper. I'm good that way.
Robert Stehling sent out a bog of richly flavored fennel broth with a luscious lump of grouper and a crispy croquette of Jasmine rice. After sopping up this bowl, I was full of food.
And wine too.
Clint Sloan, sommelier of McCrady's, and Harry Root, owner of Grassroots Wine Wholesalers and newly appointed SFA boardmember, put together the vino for the night, finding several Southern winemakers to feature. We're not talking about people growing grapes in the South. These are guys who grew up in places unlikely to produce world class winemakers, like Marietta, Ga. and Sumter, S.C. And they're now making wines out in California. Indeed Thomas Rivers Brown is a wine-tasting savant who made two 100-point wines in one year, an unheard of feat. Another featured winemaker was Jamey Whestone, a Charleston boy who left town several years ago and made a name for himself in Napa.
After the grouper and a lot of wine, we headed into the meatier part of the menu with a pretty plate of duck from Brock. You're unlikely to see this dish's motley collection of vegetables on the shelves at Publix: celeriac, lovage, and chestnuts. They added up to a woodsy, crisp taste of fall.
Up next, a lamb saddle wrapped in lacinato kale came with some buckskin pumpkin and vadouvan, an Indian spice, from Mr. Lata. A surprisingly light but succulent dish.
Stehling had dessert duty and made a spicy peach stack cake with cinnamon ice cream. I took a few bites of the hearty cake before settling on the ice cream. I just couldn't stuff anymore food in my gullet.
But the dinner wasn't over. Mr. Van Winkle stood up and introduced the bourbon, a bottle that his father and grandfather had made. "This is special, from the past," he said, pointing out that there were only eight or nine bottles left. After the event, Brock couldn't believe what we were treated to. He's been around the Van Winkles plenty and had never been privy to such a moment. Memorable, and surely worth every penny that was bid by those SFA members, who even got to keep a souvenir glass.