Big Night

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For years, Sarasotans have been making the trek out to Sean Murphy’s tiny Beach Bistro, perched in the sand of Holmes Beach by the Gulf of Mexico; the culinary thrills and Murphy’s high-spirited hospitality make even the long, dark drive home worthwhile. The restaurant has won statewide recognition, too, racking up eight of Florida Trend‘s […]


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For years, Sarasotans have been making the trek out to Sean Murphy’s tiny Beach Bistro, perched in the sand of Holmes Beach by the Gulf of Mexico; the culinary thrills and Murphy’s high-spirited hospitality make even the long, dark drive home worthwhile. The restaurant has won statewide recognition, too, racking up eight of Florida Trend‘s coveted Golden Spoon awards and earning the highest Zagat ratings in Florida. But several months ago, Murphy and his creative team took their show on the road, heading to New York’s James Beard House, the Greenwich Village townhouse where the late, great gastronome lived. There they presented a six-course dinner to one of the world’s most discriminating audiences.

We followed them every step of the way, chronicling the weeklong preparations in New York that culminated in a Florida-themed feast. But before we get to that hectic week in New York, a few words about the James Beard dinners.

To be chosen to cook at the James Beard House is both an honor and a challenge. An honor because these dinners, which are organized by the James Beard Foundation, showcase only the top regional chefs around the country. The selection process is rigorous, and simply to be invited can be a crown jewel in a chef’s career.

And it’s a challenge because the sophisticated diners who attend come with high expectations, and the townhouse itself is small and oddly configured; guests who arrive for dinner must walk through the kitchen to get to the enclosed garden, where they’re served champagne and appetizers. The kitchen is ridiculously small by today’s standards, even with recent appliance upgrades from Beard Foundation supporters.

Formal dining tables are scattered through the narrow, vertical house, including Beard’s former bedchamber on the second floor. Beard, who topped 300 pounds, loved his outdoor glass shower on the second-floor terrace, and he routinely scandalized his neighbors by scrubbing away in the buff. Now that area is used for wine staging.

Above the fireplace in Beard’s library-sitting room hangs a large portrait that captures the gastronome’s robust style. The third floor is used for administrative offices, but the boardroom doubles as a dining room when there’s a sellout crowd, as for the Beach Bistro dinner.

Between the invitation and the grand dinner itself (18 months in Murphy’s case), the chosen chefs have time to plan and perfect the menu and figure out logistics. They also need to start saving money, because it’s a costly honor to cook dinner for 100 at the Beard House. Expenses for the visiting restaurant include menu ingredients, wine travel, New York accommodations, shipping costs and transportation costs from hotel to the Beard House, which in Manhattan can be substantial. Typically, chefs spend an average of $20,000 to $25,000 of their own on the event.

Although he had a year and a half to get ready, Murphy says in many ways he’s been preparing for this meal for 20 years, ever since he and wife Susan bought a little shack on Holmes Beach and opened the Beach Bistro, the same weekend a major hurricane hit.

"This Beard event has been like the Olympics for me," says Murphy. "We’ve been pursuing perfection since day one at the Beach Bistro, and this was our chance to demonstrate what we’ve learned and how good we are. We had three head-banging sessions about the menu as well as a test meal a month before going to New York, and we continued to adjust methods of preparation right up to getting on the plane."

The final menu (see below) represents what Murphy and his crew believe is the best of Southwest Florida’s coastal cuisine-and of their kitchen. It includes such locally famous specialties as Bistro bouillabaisse-with Nova Scotia lobster tails, Key West shrimp, and fresh fish, clams, mussels and calamari swimming in a rich broth-and Florida spiny lobstercargot, which features Key West lobster baked with shallots, spinach and garlic butter.

"Everything we’ve learned comes together in this menu," Murphy said a few weeks before the dinner. "I know how good our food is; the challenge is to make our food 2,500 miles away from home."

The team that took on that challenge includes chefs Mac DeCarle, Peter Arpke and Seth Groseclose; Robert (Bobby) Valentino supervised the wine; and Beach Bistro manager Annette Walden served as tour leader for a group of local customers who decided they wanted to travel to New York for the dinner.

Murphy describes his role as team coach. "There’s always a snake or two under a rock," he says. "My job was to eliminate snakes and ensure that the event went off smoothly."

And did he succeed? Take a look at the tense week in New York, culminating in the Friday dinner, and decide for yourself.

Monday

Murphy arrives in New York, checks into W Hotel, goes to the Beard House, rechecks his maps of the kitchen and dining room and confers with foundation staff. He tells them he is aiming for laserlike precision with his Friday dinner event.

Tuesday

Murphy is back at Beard House. Food shipments begin to arrive at the W Hotel. Head chef Mac DeCarle arrives, and the two of them eat at the Carnegie Deli. Sean and Mac debate fine points of the dinner menu such as whether or not to present the Florida spiny lobstercargot on a scooped-out new potato.

The Bistro’s lobstercargot is a riff on the traditional French dish of escargot, but Murphy dismisses snails as "worthless little balls of rubber." Instead he uses chunks of Florida spiny lobster and the traditional garlic butter and serves his lobster morsels in the classic escargot dish. But carting the dishes to New York and serving this kind of dish to 100 is impractical. So DeCarle came up with the idea of serving each garlic-sauce-drenched lobster morsel in the hollow of a scooped-out new potato. It looks appetizing, and the neutral taste of the potato doesn’t compromise the intense flavors and textures of the seafood.

There’s also much discussion of serving foie gras to 100. It’s a crucial ingredient in the entrée "Food Heaven," which is roasted rack of lamb, poached lobster tail and foie gras with a savory brioche bread pudding and a sauce of port reduction, vanilla bean, rosemary and aged balsamic.

"The temperature for serving the foie gras is critical," Murphy explains. "One minute too late, and the whole thing turns to a congealed lump of fat. We must make sure to get the foie gras out of the ovens, onto the plate with the lamb and lobster and to 100 guests scattered on three floors of the building. The timing must be perfect or the whole dish fails. And the Bistro bouillabaisse is a whole other worry."

Wednesday

The remaining two chefs, Arpke and Groseclose, arrive to set up headquarters at the W Hotel kitchen. Murphy maps out logistics between the Beard House and the hotel. Already there are problems: His wife, Susan, has been notified by their daughter Alex’s college that Alex is sick. So Susan will not make the New York trip on Thursday but heads to Alex’s school instead. Since Susan and Sean have worked side by side since the restaurant opened nearly 20 years ago, this was to be a joint triumph for the couple. Now the thrill for Murphy is diminished.

Also, the wine to be paired with each course, which he and Valentino carefully selected and shipped to New York, has not arrived. Should he replace it? He decides not to; the menu is already printed, and those are the wines he wants to serve. In any case, he can’t believe the shipment won’t arrive, and with all the traffic in New York this week, he would have real problems trying to assemble the vintages and quantity he needs. He goes to lunch at Union Square Café, but it’s hard for him to enjoy it as he worries that the wine situation may turn into the biggest snake under a rock.

Sauces such as demi-glace and stock for the bouillabaisse prepared at the Beach Bistro and shipped overnight to the W Hotel have already arrived and are stored in the hotel kitchen. DeCarle, Arpke and Groseclose begin some prep in the W Hotel kitchen, while the team continues refining the menu. Groseclose cuts his finger to the bone, and when the team needs a certain piece of equipment they left in Florida, the hotel manager says he’ll phone a sister hotel down the block and have it sent over.

But that doesn’t happen. It seems the leader of Pakistan is staying at the sister hotel, and the whole place is in a 24-hour lockdown for security reasons. The Bistro chefs will have to improvise.

That night Murphy takes the chefs and a small group of friends to a steak house, where he orders copious amounts of food for the table as the group continues to strategize about the Beard dinner. Suddenly, DeCarle leaves the table. He doesn’t come back. Later he’s found retching, sweating and doubled up in pain in the restroom. The team’s head chef has eaten a bad raw oyster. The staff reckons he’s got a day to recover while prep work continues. No time for sympathy; too close to final countdown.

Thursday

Murphy is on his cell trying to track down his red and white wines and the champagne. Local traffic is a serious problem. Streets are blocked off and traffic gridlocked because so many United Nations dignitaries are in town for the opening of the General Assembly. President George W. Bush is staying at the Waldorf Astoria, across the street from the W Hotel. SWAT teams are on the Waldorf roof, armed men are on nearby street corners and fleets of black limos are everywhere. There are Secret Service agents in the hotel elevators. On a ride up with two of them, Murphy expresses his strong and well-known opinions about the deficiencies of the current administration. The stone-faced G-men stare straight ahead and exit at their floor. A Canadian by birth, Murphy became an American citizen two years ago and takes seriously his responsibility to dissent.

Mid-morning, he meets Jacques Pépin at the French Culinary Institute and stays to share lunch with the legendary French chef, who is a trustee emeritus at the James Beard Foundation.

It’s late afternoon when the Florida contingent arrives, about 40 Bistro fans who have paid approximately $2,500 for a full weekend of food and fun culminating in the Beard House dinner. They change clothes for a rooftop cocktail party. A few of the women lean over the stone railing to glimpse the streetscape. In less than 10 minutes, four policemen appear and want to know what’s going on. Amused, Murphy says the police haven’t crashed one of his parties since he was 13 and one of the Irish bad boys of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Then he toasts friendship and the dinner tomorrow night, and the group hops onto a chartered bus for dinner in the private dining room at Gramercy Tavern.

Meanwhile, downstairs in the W Hotel kitchen, the Beach Bistro chefs are preparing the brioche bread pudding. And the wine has arrived!

Later that night, Murphy and Valentino stack cases of red and white in Murphy’s hotel room, relieved that the bottles finally made it. Still no champagne. Murphy knows he can’t get the kind he wants in sufficient quantities from local liquor stores; he considers ordering from a big warehouse, but he discovers delivery trucks can’t get near the hotel because of U.N. week. And then there’s the issue of money. He’s paid for that champagne already and doesn’t want to buy it all over again. He’ll wait until tomorrow to decide what to do.

Friday

The chefs are at the Beard House by 10 a.m. Meanwhile, Murphy organizes and hosts a picnic in Central Park for the Florida people. A charter bus takes the group to the huge Columbus Circle Whole Foods for bread, cheese, olives and wine, and then to Carnegie Deli for the sliced meats.

The champagne has still not appeared, and Murphy is on the cell phone between bites of his sandwich and chatting up the guests in the park.

The Florida group splits up for shopping and sightseeing. A few head for Chinatown; others opt for strolling along Fifth Avenue. Some decide to check out the architectural changes at MoMA; others return to the hotel for a nap or a drink at the bar.

Murphy hears from the chefs at the Beard House that he has to chase down two bottles of 20-year-old balsamic vinegar and get them to the chefs. He’s also on the cell making decisions about what white wine he can get in a hurry, because the champagne is still somewhere in transit. Then it’s back to the hotel to supervise the transportation of the last items that need to travel to the Beard House before he changes and makes the trip to the Greenwich Village brownstone himself. He brings the balsamic vinegar and also bottles of Gatorade, which he urges the kitchen staff to drink. They’ll need to be at peak energy level.

At twilight, Murphy, beaming in a black tuxedo and black T-shirt, stands at the front door of the Beard House and greets the guests, a mix of seasoned New York diners and tourists who have made a dinner at the Beard House part of their trip, Murphy’s Florida supporters, and a limo from Philadelphia full of fans who eat at the Beach Bistro when they are in Florida. He ushers them through the kitchen, where chefs in white coats are doing a silent square dance at ovens and prep tables, and out to the garden, where blue crab cocktails, smoked salmon, "kicker" shrimp and duck mousse appetizers are served with a still white wine.

A New Yorker who attends Beard House dinners regularly remarks that it’s refreshing to have wine other than champagne at the pre-dinner reception. No one explains to him that champagne was the intended beverage.

An hour later guests are seated, and the "Best of Florida in Manhattan" multicourse dinner seamlessly unfolds. Even before dessert-praline Alexandra with chocolate truffle terrine-people are applauding, and members of the foundation board are declaring the event a resounding success. A board member rises to toast the Beach Bistro and formally invite Sean Murphy back to do another meal.

Sean graciously accepts, but adds, "Never again during U.N. General Assembly opening week!" By 10:30 p.m. it’s all over.

Saturday

For the Beach Bistro staff it’s basking in the glow, wrap-up meeting and sightseeing in New York, along with lunch at Gotham Bar and Grill.

Sunday

Back to Florida.

Monday

Sean Murphy’s champagne arrives at the W Hotel.

MENU

Pre-Dinner Tasting

Gulf Coast Blue Crab Cocktails

Willy Krauch’s Smoked Salmon Aureoles

Sugarcane-staked, Bistro-grilled Kicker Shrimp

Housemade "Duck, Duck, Mousse" Pâté on Golden Spoons

Dinner

Florida Spiny Lobstercargot

Esformes Warm Bella Roma Tomato Salad

Bistro Bouillabaisse

Food Heaven: Roasted Rack of Rosen Farm Lamb, Butter-Poached "Novey" Lobster Tail and D’Artagnan Foie Gras.

Praline Alexandra with Chocolate Truffle Terrine