Saturday might have broken into my top 10 favorite work days. Despite the very early (6:30 a.m.) call time to work that day, I was in my element. Restaurant Iris’s Chef Kelly English brought together 20 amazing chefs (10 local, 10 guests) for a fundraiser for Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital – LeBonAppetit. In its inaugural year, the event was sold out weeks in advance.
Gush Alert: Let me first mention my love for fine dining in this city, and the recognition that our chefs have gotten in the last several years – I feel – has largely been due to Chef Kelly’s exposure across the nation. By participating in recognizable events like Cochon555 and others, he is spreading the Memphis Food Good News and other Memphis chefs are following suit. I could write tomes of my admiration for Chef Kelly, and I am so thankful that he chose Le Bonheur as the beneficiary of this very unique event.
When I first heard about the event, I almost lost it, and several, several times over the last few months my coworkers have heard me spew out phrases like “Oh my god, do you know who he is?” and “So and so was in Food and Wine this month.” and “Um, I mean he was nominated for a James Beard Award.” So you can imagine how little convincing my boss had to do to get me to give up my Saturday to work on the photography and social media for this event. Get to rub elbows with such accomplished chefs? – yes, please – where do I sign up.
So bright and early on Saturday morning, I arrived at the FedExFamilyHouse to prepare for a media event and tour with some of the nation’s best chefs. As you can imagine – it took all I had not to gush when five of the chefs walked in to cook with several former Le Bonheur patients. In Iron Chef style we divided the chefs up into two teams – 1. Chef English and Chef Barry Maiden from Hungry Mother in Boston and 2. Chefs Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman from Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen paired with Chef Mike Lata from Fig in Charleston.
The teams had 15 (errr. well more like 20) minutes to make breakfast for our child judges. Perched at the bar, the kids watched each chef’s every move and asked a ton of questions. The chefs got into the competition too and tried some sabotage and ingredient stealing – all in the name of friendly competition.
After the breakfast competition, I headed over to Le Bonheur to meet the rest of the chefs and led a short tour of the hospital. First – I love showing off our hospital. It’s all bright and shiny and new (opened in 2010), and I love showing off the amazing work that is done within those walls. But what do I love more? Showing it off to chefs from across the country and hearing their oohs and ahhs. That warms my heart.
After the tour, the chefs broke off into pairs and began prepping for the evening’s event. Off I went, I drove across the city, from kitchen to kitchen to document the prep. This is when the food nerding went into overdrive. I had open season to ask questions, talk about preparation, and get a sneak peek at their finished dishes. While, I didn’t get to all of the kitchens, I did get some quality time with Chef Jose from River Oaks and got a sneak peek of Hog & Hominy with Chef Barry.
After running around in 100 degree weather, I took at stop at YoLo for some Avacado Cilantro Gelato for a treat, before heading home to get ready and a quick rest.
At 5:30 p.m., I arrived at the Collumns for the main event. The chefs’ stations were across the room, and guests went from station to station to get the dishes. With twenty dishes, guests had to pace themselves. Trust me – this was no easy task. It took all I had not to go immediately to each station and stuff myself sick.
Let’s talk about these dishes. No, I can’t pick a favorite but many stuck out in my mind as highlights. First – I tried the baby octopus from Acre’s station from Chef Wally joe after much coaxing from my friend Andrew and Chef Lee Richardson from Little Rock’s Capital Hotel. I have to say that it was quite good – being a texture eater, I was pretty surprised how good it was. I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised, but I was surprised that I liked it.
Second – I loved the sweet and sour catfish from Chef Lee’s station. As a good country girl from the self-proclaimed catfish capital of the world, I’m a pretty harsh catfish critic, and Chef Lee knocked it out of the park. The sauce was perfectly balanced and the fish was moist and tender.
Third – The most inventive dish I had was from Root’s Chef Phillip Lopez. Chef Phillip served seared ahi tuna on a salad of compressed grilled watermelon, tomatoes, feta and avacado dots frozen with liquid nitrogen. This dish was so interesting – the combination of textures, temperatures and flavors. This station was also a star of the event with the liquid nitrogen bubbling away.
Fourth – You all know that I am a sucker for a grilled cheese, so when Felicia Suzanne’s Chef Felicia Willett served up a crab melt – I was all over it. This was actually the first dish that I tried for the night, and I knew it was going to be a good night. Simple and delicious.
Fifth – I know that I am going to butcher the description of this dish by Hungry Mother’s Chef Barry Maiden, and I know it is a play on a classic italian dish. But for the life of me, I can’t remember what he said exactly, but I know that it started with a cooled sous vide pork loin cooked to medium, served with a sauce made of Massachusetts bluefish and a salad of radish and microgreens. First, I’ve never had sous vide pork loin, and it was perfectly juicy. The sauce had a little gritty texture but delicious flavor.
Lastly – The shrimp ceveche taco from Las Tortugas’s Chef Jonathan Magallanes was outstanding – sweet, spicy, tender – delicious. I am not a huge shrimp fan, but I figure if anyone could make me like it would be Chef Jonathan from Las Tortugas.
While these were my highlights, all of the dishes by the chefs were absolutely outstanding. Nearly every chef ran out of food by the end of the night, and there were nothing but raves about each dish. Thank you, Chefs!! And I am currently considering a tour d’ LeBonAppetit to visit the guest chefs’ restaurants. Who’s with me?