Pinkies Out and Bottoms Up at James Beard Chefs & Champagne Party

by Nicholas Rummell and Evan Leventhal
Photos courtesy of James Beard Foundation
July 2012

They say nobody should turn down Champagne when it's offered, and few of the 1,200 attendees declined flutes of bubbly at the annual James Beard Chefs & Champagne summer event, held July 21 at Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack, New York.

James Beard Foundation President Susan Ungaro presented honors to Author Ted Allen, as well as nine judges from Food Network's "Chopped." The evening's festivities raised more than $60,000 to support the Foundation's education programs through a silent auction of cookware, signed cookbooks, culinary travel packages, fine dining experiences, and other food collectibles. Amidst the fabulously beautiful (and fantastically rich) Hamptons crowd and gustatory groupies, the 35 tasting stations were manned by a who's who of former Beard award winners and cutting-edge chefs, including Daniel Humm (Eleven Madison Park and Nomad), Marcus Samuelsson (Red Rooster), Christopher Lee (Huntington Social), Jonathan Benno (Lincoln Ristorante), and Dominique Ansel (Dominique Ansel Bakery).

Some of the chefs—including Benno, Humm, and Ansel—paired their dishes specifically to match the three Nicolas Feuillatte Champagnes. "There needs to be the right balance of sweetness and acidity," says Ansel, who will be presenting and selling his pastries at this year's 7th International Chefs Congress. "I look toward items that have both a tart and sweet side to [them], and a delicate aroma or floral flagrance that works very well with the effervesence of the Champagne. Yuzu and Champagne, for instance, is one of my favorite combinations."

All dishes were served on VerTerra, environmentally responsible plateware made from fallen palm leaves. One standout, Benno's Insalata di Fruiti di Mare (shrimp and local squid with watermelon, corn, Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, Calabrian chiles, and basil) matched especially well with Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte Rosé NV. Humm's Strawberry Gazpacho also paired perfectly. "Champagne is a very versatile pairing," Humm says. "But with Champagne becoming more terroir-specific … the wide array of styles have made them much more interesting to pair with food." Even French fries, Humm says, can make for a great pairing with Champagne. "The salty, fatty fries are truly a great combination with bubbles."

Ansel, whose Miniature Lemon-Praline Éclairs with Caramelized Hazelnuts were also a big hit, agrees. "Champagne and French fries are divine. The first time I had some was after a lavish dinner party we were throwing. At the end of the night, we made some sauce with leftover foie gras, dipped the fries into it, and capped it off with Champagne."

The Chefs & Champagne event might not have matched that level of decadence, but it came close. Lobster and caviar made several appearances and a station of hand-carved Iberico and a generous assortment of cheeses from the masters of the Mediterranean, Forever Cheese, complimented a bounty of flowing wines and spirits.