Originally published by “The Latin Kitchen” website on 1/29/2014.
All photographs by Fran Gullo of Daddy Pantz.
On Tuesday, January 27, 2014, Maine’s Chef Shannon Bard brought her “Maine meets Mexico” style to the James Beard House in New York City.
Bard joins the ranks of women such as author Maricel Presilla, blogger Aran Goyoaga, and Chef Zarela Martinez who showcase Latin food at the forefront of lauded American cookery. The James Beard Foundation has taken notice: Latinas have gained increased recognition from the group at its yearly awards ceremony, and within the Foundation’s weekly culinary events.
The James Beard Foundation is in the Greenwich Village townhouse of the eponymous “Dean of American Cookery.” After Beard’s death in 1983, the Foundation was formed to sustain the culinary work that Beard had done throughout his lifetime. Colleen Vincent, reservations manager and dinner emcee spoke with a commanding grace about the mission: “To educate and inspire both those in the cooking professions and the general public.”
Beard himself was a proponent of “ethnic Latin” cuisines at a time when America was recovering from wartime rationing and the impact of modern, busy lifestyles. Diverse chefs from across North America are invited to cook at the Foundation after a rigorous application process.
“I applied to do a dinner and knew how much it would be for us with time, production and effort,” states Shannon Bard. Candidates are scrutinized for skillset, contribution to the mission of the Foundation, as well as their contribution to their prospective communities at-large. The Foundation’s board members then invite select applicants and set a date for their individual dinners.
“I knew that when I received the invitation on my mom’s birthday, this was going to be a great thing. And when they told me I would be cooking on the date of my grandmother’s birthday, I knew it was meant to be,” laughs Bard.
Bard cites her mother and grandmother as the major influences on her cooking philosophy: “They were the backbone of the [Oklahoma] farm where I grew up,” she states. Shannon’s base is in the food industry, along with her husband, partner and industry veteran, Tom Bard. She attended culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio, Texas and trained in Mexican cuisine with an eye focused on the foods of Oaxaca. The duo paired up with Guadalajara native, Sergio Ramos to form two Mexican restaurants in New England, Zapoteca and Mixteca.
Dinners at the James Beard House serve as a showcase for both chef and guests: attendees are strongly encouraged to interact and ask questions. Upon arrival at the townhouse for Bard’s dinner, guests entered the small kitchen where she and her staff were ready to meet-and-greet while plating food and making last-minute preparations. Sergio Ramos (one of four certified tequila sommeliers in the US) held forth in the greenhouse, where guests mingled and sipped on Zapoteca’s signature watermelon Habanero margaritas.
All photo credits: Fran Gullo
Colleen Vincent states, “Everyone should ask about the wine parings, spices and tequilas. We love when people share their stories and travels.” Vincent and the staff circulated throughout the evening, answering questions and encouraging interaction.
Each dish that Bard prepared for the dinner included at least one ingredient from Maine: lobster topped a corn and poblano chile appetizer-sized bisque and a Mariscos Chilpachole seafood stew- complete with scallops, mussels and ancho chiles. Maine cranberries were pureed into a mole sauce for duck; Maine butternut squash was roasted and made into an orange-scented Oaxacan Sopa and seacoast mushrooms and goat cheese graced the corn Masa Tamales.
“I love these flavors she [Chef Bard] is making. When I lived in a little town called, Benito Juarez, this was the kind of flavor and spice I ate. I have not eaten food like this since I was there, “states Elizabeth Kingsley-Martinez. She came to the dinner as a guest, “hoping to see if I could get authentic Mexican food. I love it.”
The home’s dining rooms are situated over four floors: the Greenwich townhouse has been preserved much the same way it was when Beard himself was the owner. Portraits of Beard don the walls, along with culinary memorabilia and a vast collection of award-winning cookbooks. The Foundation provides service staff as well as kitchen interns from local culinary schools to help with the evening’s operations.
“It is too rare that we have Latin food here at the house. I count one every two months or so – it is even rarer for a woman chef to cook this way at the house and in this style of Mexican food. We love to see it and our guests love it. Our members got very excited and we sold out quickly,” states Behrim Mekuli, service manager at the Foundation.
The Bards and Ramos provided the food, beverages and a special selection of rare Herradura Seleccion Suprema Tequila, aged over four years in American oak.
At the end of the evening, amongst scraped-clean plates of chile-spiced devil’s food cake and tequila crème anglais, Chef Bard announced, “It was important for me to reflect the Oaxacan tradition in the use of local food and to apply those techniques to ingredients we have here. It is about the skill-set and products, as well as the traditional philosophy behind that.”
She received a standing ovation.