In the culinary world, cooking at the James Beard House is like treading the boards at the Kennedy Center or toeing the rubber at Yankee Stadium.

Dining at one of these magical meals in Greenwich Village might not be geographically or economically feasible for most of us, but once a year, the former obstacle is moot. Since 2013, a headline event at the Savannah Food & Wine Festival has been a James Beard Foundation dinner, just one of the moveable feasts on its cross-country calendar, and having hosted the JBF Celebrity Chef Tour dinner last year, the Perry Lane Hotel and The Emporium Kitchen & Wine Market will be the site of the November 6 gala, this time billed as a Friends of James Beard Dinner.

Get Savannah arts and culture news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our morning, afternoon and Dine newsletters At nearly $200 a person, this food fête is, understandably, not for everyone’s wallet or palate, but that price tag includes a champagne reception followed by a six-course dinner with wine pairings accompanying each course.  In addition, the all-star line-up of culinary talent for this year’s dinner includes six chefs from local restaurants, each of whom is excited to be part of an esculent experience that will shine a spotlight on the Hostess City.

The Emporium’s Executive Sous Chef Jhunery ‘June’ Battung will be the host chef for the evening, and he and his team will serve one of the six main courses: a crispy octopus with grape–marcona almond gazpacho. When presented with the opportunity to play host for a second straight year, Battung recalled saying, “Heck yeah. Let’s do it again.” He added, “We built a lot of great relationships with the chefs that came here” in 2018 and said that the exposure for Savannah benefits everyone here, both in the kitchens and at the tables.

Chef Bryan Furman, founder and owner of B’s Cracklin’ BBQ, will also prepare one of the main courses, a jerked-and-smoked mother sheep, which is a little fattier and has more flavor than mutton, served with stewed callaloo greens with black-eyed peas.

Fellow local Executive Chefs Greg Garrison (Prohibition), Chris Hathcock (Husk Savannah), and Nick Wilber (The Fat Radish) will all prepare canapés and hors d'oeuvres for the evening’s reception, and The Emporium’s Executive Pastry Chef Tina Haldeman will create the desserts.

“It’s nice that [this] dinner specifically has all the local chefs act as the hosts so [that] we can act as a host city and show hospitality and have that camaraderie,” said Hathcock, “and the focus is on the visiting chefs.”

All this means that guests, effectively, will eat at B’s Cracklin’, Emporium, The Fat Radish, Husk, and Prohibition all in one evening and in one place, not to mention St. Louis’s Peacemaker Lobster & Crab and Denver’s ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro.

Not bad for two bills.

STATE OF THE ONION

The time seems to be ripest now on the branches Savannah’s culinary family tree.

In a July column, I wrote: "Since we moved to town in 2015, the restaurant openings have been too many to list, though it is important to note how many of these relatively new places quickly ascended to the upper ranks in terms of both overall quality and sustained popularity." The Emporium, The Fat Radish, Husk, and Prohibition have all opened within the last two years, and the involvement of their respective chefs in this year’s JBF dinner evinces the upward arc of the city’s restaurant evolution.

“I think we’re in a Renaissance,” said Battung, who oversaw the from-the-ground-up build at The Emporium, which opened in June 2018. “Kind of like what Charleston went through back in the late 90s and early 2000s.”

“Thank goodness for The Grey, bringing in more people to try out Savannah,” he quickly added, crediting Bailey in particular for carrying the city’s culinary claxon. Battung then gave thanks to and compliments for many fellow chefs, namely Jason and Jennifer Restivo (Atlantic) and Hathcock, who himself seconded Battung’s depiction of the city’s comestible course. “I compare Savannah to Charleston like it was fifteen years ago, on the early stages of it being a real food mecca," he said.

“It’s why we chose Savannah as well,” echoed Wilber, explaining that Savannah’s already budding culinary culture was what brought Natalie Freihon and The Fat Radish brand here. “We have huge chefs,” Hathcock said, also singling out Bailey for her James Beard Award and her appearing in the Netflix series "Chef’s Table." “It’s really challenging diners, getting them out of their comfort zones.”

Over the last two years, he catered Husk’s menu to the palate of its guests but slowly introduced dishes that were “more challenging.” Hathcock and his team ‘celebrate’ those ingredients but do so with Asian influences and French techniques so that Husk’s menu are tinged with multi-various culinary styles and flavors.

Savannah’s Prohibition has been open two years now, while its Charleston namesake is going on six, and Garrison admitted that he cannot yet explain the difference between the ‘sister’ cities’ dining table tableaux. “I’d be lying if I told you that I had it figured out by now,” he said. “I can say that, for sure, it seems [that] more people are willing to go out and spend a little bit of money and a little bit of time to dine in Savannah, and as time progresses, I think that’s going to become a more and more popular option.”

In Charleston, the tourist numbers dictate the restaurant trade, and Prohibition’s ‘northern outpost’’ can steadily serve 200 covers on a weekend evening. “In Savannah, what we learned is, while there is a big tourism scene, it’s more important to cater to the locals and find out what they’re after,” Garrison explained. “We’re trying to make people come in and slow down and relax and enjoy themselves more so than they do in Charleston.”

“It’s shown to work for us,” he added, noting the positive feedback from Prohibition’s diners who have enjoyed the unhurried pace of a night out at the Savannah outpost.

Battung said that The Emporium’s focus has largely been on the Savannah diner, too. He estimated that their clientele, by an approximation of reservation numbers, has been an 80-20 split of locals to hotel guests plus conventioneers. “The way we positioned ourselves, yes, we are at Perry Lane Hotel, but we are adjacent to Perry Lane Hotel, so we’re not your traditional ‘hotel restaurant’.”

“It’s been a real positive reception from the locals and other restaurateurs,” said Wilber of the The Fat Radish’s first few months. Mostly recently at Basic Kitchen in Charleston and before that at the New York TFR, he added, “We made it through a Savannah summer, which is always a challenge for every restaurant in town.” Wilber reiterated statements he made when The Fat Radish opened about how welcoming the restaurant industry in Savannah has been, quite a change for someone who had spent quality time in New York City’s more competitive climate.

“This was kind of a new experience for me,” he said with a chuckle. “When you open a restaurant in New York, it’s cutthroat a little bit, everybody’s kind of competing. Here, it was more of an open-armed welcome with people helping. You’re going to the farmers’ market, you’re meeting people, you meet one person and then you’re introduced to a couple more, and that kind of flow and effect is really energizing.” He described a collaboration among chefs that he has experienced with respect to using the same purveyors of produce: if Abundant Seafood is coming down from Charleston to drop off a delivery at The Grey, it is more cost-effective for everyone, right down to the diner, if other deliveries go to The Fat Radish and a few more Savannah spots on that same trip.

“It’s been refreshing to be in this kind of environment where all the local restaurants really want to drive the scene in the right direction,” Wilber said. “They have a great sense of where they want it to go and where we all align. I think that’s awesome.”

RIPE FOR THE CHALLENGE

“An opportunity to be involved with the foundation, just for what it stands for, always goes to the top of the list,” said Hathcock, who has been involved with a few James Beard events already, including a dinner up in New York City this past summer.

JBF’s Director of House Programming Izabela Wojcik had eaten at Husk a few months before that, quite anonymously, but pulled Hathcock aside after her meal and said that she really wanted him to come up to the Beard House to cook a Low Country dinner. He, his number-two sous chef, Jacob Hammer, his general manager-sommelier, Heather Mitchell, and one of his New York City friends prepared a six-course, ten-bite meal for sixty guests on July 17.

“Going to the Beard House wasn’t anything I wasn’t used to,” Hathcock explained. “There’s a lot of work and definitely a lot of nerves and anxiety.”

His description of cooking at the Beard House sounded like a chef’s away game, preparing a meal in a “foreign” tight-quartered kitchen, but when the JBF came calling for the second time in one year, this time for, essentially, a ‘home game’, Hathcock recalled his immediate reply: “Heck yeah, I’d love to be involved.”

(That is two ‘Heck yeahs’ from these chefs, in case you are keeping score at home.)

For this Friends of James Beard Dinner, Hathcock and his Husk crew will serve Vietnamese-style super-crispy crêpes made with Charleston Gold rice flour and filled with a variety of mushroom preparations: pickled shiitakes, mushroom purée, and roasted-and-dehydrated mushrooms. “I’m looking forward to just being a part of it,” said Wilber, whose team will be preparing a beet tartare with chamomile and pickled mustard seeds on Melba toast. “We’re lucky to be a part of it as a really new restaurant in town.”

He said that he is also looking forward to meeting and working alongside some of the other local chefs, particularly those whom he has not yet met, in that special environment. “It’s going to draw a lot of attention to the food scene here, which I think is great,” Wilber said. “People coming here to enjoy the scenery and the restaurants is a good thing for the city.” The year before last, NYC’s The Fat Radish actually closed for an evening when Wilber brought his whole team with him to cook a dinner at the James Beard house, just like his mentor, Bradford Thompson (2006’s Best Chef: Southwest), had done when Wilber worked for him at Mary Elaine’s in Scottsdale, AZ.

“It was a really amazing kind of experience,” he recalled, noting that it was also his first time ever being in New York. “There’s a lot of rich history in that building, and they do a really amazing job.”

In the office at the James Beard House are the saved menus from all of the foundations dinners, signed by the participating chefs who truly become part of America’s culinary history. “I guess I consider it an honor,” Chef Furman said humbly of his first experience cooking at a Beard event, “but I don’t consider myself a chef. I just cook my food.”

“Being nominated this year for Best Chef in the Southeast right before my restaurant burned down was great,” he said, referring to his Upper Westside Atlanta eatery that caught fire back in March while also confessing that he never looked for this kind of accolade, being that he cooks barbecue. When Food & Wine Magazine called to tell him that he was a 2019 Best New Chef, he thought that it was a prank or simply a cold call to buy a subscription to the magazine. Furman admitted that he does not make it down to his Southside Savannah location often, what with a B’s Cracklin’ in State Farm Arena and another Atlanta branch recently opened in the brand new ‘Beltline’ Kroger at 725 Ponce.

“It’s exciting,” said Garrison about his first opportunity to play a title role in a Beard dinner. The Prohibition Executive Chef and Partner, who is part owner of both restaurants, and his team - Savannah’s Chef de Cuisine Tony Smith and Charleston’s Chef de Cuisine Analisa LaPietra - will make a crab and cheddar tartlet topped with black truffle and butternut squash. Like Furman, Garrison has a vested footprint on Savannah’s food map, though he lives in Charleston and spends more time at its Prohibition branch.

“It’s a mix of so many different emotions,” Battung said about the honor of hosting and cooking for another JBF event. “I wouldn’t be human if I said I’m cool about it. I am human. I’m nervous, excited, scared, just making sure everything goes smoothly.”

“I was in the Boy Scouts when I was young,” he added, smiling. “Always be prepared for whatever happens.”

Those who have cooked in the James Beard House’s kitchen agree that the space itself is a challenge, and Battung said that the cooperating chefs for the November 6 feast will face similar tests as they share the Perry Lane’s smaller banquet kitchen in the hotel’s south tower. “It’s getting all of those moving parts together and organizing them, pretty much like traffic control.”

With Battung, Haldeman opened The Emporium back in 2018, right after serving as an IOC Pastry Chef for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, and with three dinner events at the James Beard House in New York under her toque, she has the most JBF experience of any of this year’s local chefs. Haldeman also made the New Pastry Chef list in the 1997 James Beard Guide Book while working at Memphis’s famed Peabody Hotel with Master Chef José Gutierrez. She commented that it is “always an honor to have an opportunity to work with talented chefs around the country,” and she is “excited to see and learn to be able to create plates which might be a part of new trending culinary industry.” Haldeman and her team, including a few French interns, will make the desserts: Sao Palme bitter chocolate, smoky vanilla ice cream, amaranth pops, and midnight cocoa macarons. She will also oversee Savannah Tech students who will prepare the dinner’s breads.

As they did at last year’s event, those students will work both in the kitchen and front of house. Two of the students who helped out last year are now in Chef Battung’s team: baking it forward.

WHAT NOW?

Without question, the Savannah Food & Wine Festival and a Friends of James Beard Dinner can only help stir Savannah’s already simmering pot.

“It’s really helping out the culinary scene,” said Battung. The heat is definitely on and seems to be rising, virtually by the day, on the nature of the Savannah restaurant, what it provides, and what diners expect - all of which is promising.

“On my days off, I like to go support other peoples’ restaurants,” Hathcock said, “support the community and see what they’re doing.” As for ‘next steps’ in Savannah’s growth as a truly exceptional food town, Hathcock suggested “getting other neighborhoods in the city to be more food-oriented.” He credited the recent Starland boom but mentioned spaces in Midtown and Eastside that would be great for restaurants. “There are some older buildings over there that could do with a transformation like we did here at Husk. Renovate it and keep the integrity and historical value of these buildings.”

In addition, he noted that I-80 to Tybee Island, and Tybee itself, has a need for “destination restaurants for local foodies” and tourists alike. “It’s been refreshing to be in this kind of environment where all the local restaurants really want to drive the scene in the right direction,” Wilber said of his first months working in Savannah. “They have a great sense of where they want it to go and where we all align. I think that’s awesome.”

These Beard-chosen chefs agreed that the upped ante has also allowed them to push boundaries, to experiment with unique ingredients while utilizing locally available produce, to train kitchen staff more comprehensively, and to lead with ingenuity and by example.

“Now, I’m kind of doing whatever I want, and guests are really loving it and eating it up,” Hathcock said. Literally.

“We’re going for the long term,” Garrison concluded resolutely. “We didn’t put in all this work and travel so much, driving back and forth two days a week, just to make money. We’re hoping to be on the forefront of the future of the Savannah culinary scene.”

I would say that cooking for a James Beard dinner puts him and these other talented chefs right there.