June 20, 2012

Nourish-ing for the soul

Last night I had the opportunity to volunteer for a wonderful and worthy event and I also had a lot of fun in the process. I was reminded of the way I felt back when I volunteered for the World Pastry Championships in Nashville and of how great it felt to both be a part of an exciting event and to be around chefs and work with food. I've got to do it more often.

Last night's fun was a benefit that took place at our local farmer's market called Nourish Nashville. A benefit for the Nashville Food Project, it was a four-course dinner with wine pairings prepared by some of the best chefs in the Southeast followed by an auction. The dinner was sold out and at $160 a pop, it was a huge success.

My role was to assist the (some of them James Beard Award nominee) chefs in the kitchen. When I first arrived there was a bit of confusion and not a lot to do. I saw some friendly faces, Cara and chef Hal, owners of the soon to be opened around the corner from my house (yay!) Lockeland Table. 

I jumped right in and helped plate the appetizers Chef Hal Holden-Bache was preparing: beef heart tartare with mustard green and peanut pesto, and pickled Gulf shrimp with cucumber mint salsa (photo above). Yum. After tasting these and knowing what these two are capable of, I cannot wait for their new venture to open.

Then, there was some waiting and standing around while the MC (none other than esteemed Southern food expert and journalist, John Edgerton) talked about the cause and introduced important people. In the kitchen the man who seemed to be in charge, or at least the one everyone looked up to, was Chef John Fleer (of Canyon Kitchen at Lonesome Valley in North Carolina but known formerly as the man behind Blackberry Farm, one of my all-time-would-die-to-eat-there-let-alone-stay-there places in the world). I was equally impressed by him and by his calm and courteous demeanor. He even thanked the volunteers for being there (before we even did anything).

(the first course: tomato terrine, Empire State South Fromage Blanc, bread crakers, country ham, fennel and Georgia olive oil, prepared by Empire State South (Atlanta) chef Ryan Smith.

Each chef was responsible for one course and as the tables were lined up and the chefs and their assistants started stacking plates and getting their ingredients ready, it became a joint effort and it took every set of hands from every chef or volunteer to get the 250 + plates ready to go out. Once the course was plated, it was picked up by the servers and whisked off to be devoured by guests seated just beyond the flimsy curtain that separated the kitchen from the makeshift market hall dining room.

I wanted to be a part of the energy even if just as a bystander so I stood nearby watching as they readied the first course. I never thought that I'd be asked to jump in and help plate this delicious and complicated-looking food. But when a chef motioned for me to jump in the line, I didn't hesitate and my job was to carefully place a little mound of chili-braised Tuscan kale alongside the crusted Sunburst trout and rum-sorghum glazed pork belly--the second course-- prepared by none other than Chef Fleer himself. I tried not to falter and work as fast as everyone else was working and it really was a well-oiled assembly line of quick hands and sliding plates. Wow, it was fun.

 (there I am in the middle, looking very serious).

The third course (prepared by Taylor Ricketts of Delta Bistro in Greenwood, MS) looked amazing and it was all I could do to not visibly drool while I stood there sprinkling the shaved almonds on top of the mound of buerre noisette-poached rabbit saddle roulade over burrata risotto, with pear confit, fried sweet potato greens, acacia honey with dried fruit and almonds. (Whew). It took about as many people to plate as it did words to describe. Chef Hal, who was working next to me, handed me a bite of the rabbit after we were done and it melted in my mouth.

The final, dessert course looked mouth-wateringly good too and I did get to try that one at the end of the night, sharing a leftover plate with another volunteer.  It was prepared by Tandra Watkins of Ashley's Restaurant in Little Rock, AR and it was a blueberry and buckwheat upside-down cake with coriander cream. Oh. my. goodness. It was ridiculous. That was fun to plate because we all just walked around the tables randomly setting the little cakes on top of the triangular-shaped plates with drizzled blueberry sauce and then spooning (or "quenelle-ing" -is that a word?) the cream on top of each one.

(here is Chef John Fleer getting into helping out by drizzling blueberry sauce).

At the end of the night, I drank a spot of bourbon with the other chefs and then headed out, a quart-sized mason jar of mustard green pesto under my arm as a gift from Chef Hal, tickled pink with myself and vowing to volunteer for another event like that as soon as I could.  Thanks to my friend Amanda Dixon for sending the opportunity my way. 

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