Local chef takes talent on road to serve elite palates in New York Dinner of Distinction

September 06, 1995|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

New York -- It's a glorious late-summer morning in Greenwich Village, the sky a slice of pure blue above the buildings, a gentle breeze blowing, temperatures that require a jacket. On West 12th Street, a khaki-colored Trooper swings up to the door of No. 167, and the driver and two passengers leap out and begin unloading: two huge stock pots, two wooden crates of corn, a box of tomatoes, cases of wine, two plastic containers filled with pecan caramel tarts.

Thus provisioned, and armed with the tools of their trade -- comfortable shoes, leather kits of personal knives and implements -- the three descend to the kitchen of the James Beard House, where they will prepare dinner for nearly 100 people that evening.

The chef is Nancy Longo, chef-owner of Pierpoint in Fells Point. At the invitation of the James Beard Foundation, which maintains the house as a memorial to the late chef, Ms. Longo will be cooking for a discriminating set of food professionals and other "foodies."

The Beard invitation is considered an honor for the chefs, who come from as far away as Bora Bora, French Polynesia, Hawaii, Oregon and Texas, and as near as down the street to show off their cooking skills. Ms. Longo was invited at the behest of Gary Cheong, a New York stockbroker who is one of a dozen Beard House program coordinators. He discovered Pierpoint on business trips to Baltimore, and thought she would be a popular guest chef.

The events, scheduled for most weekday nights and for Friday lunches, give diners a chance to sample a region's cuisine or to meet a rising star like Ms. Longo.

Richard Cernak, owner of Obrycki's in Baltimore, was at the Beard House last summer cooking steamed crabs and other dishes. "The people who go there are quite sophisticated" about food, he says, and the dinners let them sample cuisines from chefs across the country. But he considers the trip a chance to educate others about Baltimore and the Chesapeake region.

"It's always fun to take your crab cakes on the road," Ms. Longo will later tell a guest who asks why she comes so far, hauling food, to cook for strangers. For her, the most important part of the event is to help support the house so Mr. Beard's beloved culinary spirit will live on. Diners pay $40 to $75 for a meal, while chefs receive only partial reimbursement for the cost of the food they make. "I believe in that place," Ms. Longo says.

For her event, Ms. Longo has assembled a team of friends, staff and former staff, five in all, to help her with a menu that shows off such Maryland specialties as soft-shell crab and crab cakes, Silver Queen corn, biscuits, homemade rabbit sausage, venison from Easton and rockfish from the bay.

At 10:55 a.m., Ms. Longo and two of her assistants, Marty Cosgrove (who works for New Orleans Chef Paul Prudhomme's Magic Seasoning Blends and is on his way back from a biscuit festival in Milwaukee) and Gerardo Gonzales (a former Pierpoint cook now at Harbor Court's Hampton's) are standing in the conservatory. "We're like checking things out," she says.

"You want to start shucking the corn?" Mr. Cosgrove asks. He and Mr. Gonzalez were both students of Ms. Longo's when she was teaching at the Baltimore International Culinary College. He grins at her. "Who would have thought?"

"I thought we'd get a little bit of stuff done, then we'd go shopping," Ms. Longo says. A minute later, she has a piece of paper and is making a list. They've brought the basics of the dinner with them -- crab cakes, venison, duck, rockfish, tomatoes and corn, a box of soft-shell crabs -- but they need staples and garnishes.

Mr. Gonzalez has begun roasting the corn, putting it right on the burners of one of the kitchen's two gas stoves. The kitchen fills with the noise of popping, hissing corn, and with its nutty aroma. "I love the smell of it," Mr. Gonzalez says.

"You want it darker on the outside," Ms. Longo tells him. "It's really good because it has a nice toasty taste, but the inside is still really crunchy."

When the corn is roasted, it's piled back into the shallow trays, and the crew gets ready to head to Balducci's, the upscale specialty food store where well-heeled Manhattanites can buy fresh Washington state blackberries, five different kinds of eggplant, squash the size of a baby's finger, or linguine dyed black with squid ink. You can even pick up something called a "pitahaya," which the sign says "is a sweet fruit." It's about the size of a mango, but a startling pink with odd chartreuse flaps -- $4.98 each. Mr. Gonzalez can't resist, and pops one in the cart.

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