When I received an invite to attend the Second Annual Friends of James Beard dinner in Bentonville this past Sunday night, I admit I didn’t have a firm grasp of what the dinner was or what to expect.
“It’s THE culinary event of the year around here.”
“Some of the best local chefs will be cooking.”
“It’s fancy, so yes you have to dress up.”
So went the feedback I got after a bit of pre-dinner reconnaissance. Needless to say, I was intrigued. After having attended the dinner, I now have a clear understanding of what the annual Friends of James Beard dinner is, plus some new insights into another mystery that had been nagging at me since moving to Bentonville last year: the meaning of the term “High South” cuisine.
So exactly what is the Friends of James Beard dinner?
My first order of business when I got to the dinner’s venue, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, was to find someone in the know who could answer that question for me. After grabbing a proffered aperitif of sparkling wine with sugared cranberries and rosemary compliments of Pink House Alchemy, I ran into just the person, Diane Carroll, the Museum’s director of communications.
Carroll explained that each year at the beginning of November, the Friends of James Beard dinner is held at a different culinary location around town to commemorate that time two years ago when a small handful of local chefs were invited to New York City to cook at the James Beard House—the mecca of the culinary world.
So in part it’s a commemorative event, she told me. But that’s just one layer. Hosting the dinner is also a way to keep a national focus on the burgeoning Bentonville culinary scene. “We want to keep the spotlight on all of the great, innovative work that these chefs are doing,” Carroll explained.
“But who was the official host of the dinner?” I wondered as I helped myself to a black-walnut Manhattan courtesy of Scott Baker, the mixologist from Tusk and Trotter.
The six chefs featured in the dinner included:
- Bill Lyle of Eleven at Crystal Bridges
- Michael Robertshaw of Pressroom
- Matthew Cooper of Rope Swing
- Matthew McClure of The Hive at 21c Museum Hotel
- Rob Nelson of Tusk and Trotter
- Luke Wetzel of Oven and Tap
It turns out each of them belongs to the organization that serves as the event’s official host, the Bentonville Chef Alliance, which is administered by the city’s tourism bureau, Visit Bentonville. However, the dinner is co-hosted with the James Beard Foundation (a.k.a. the Oscars of the food world), and is one of many such dinners the organization co-hosts around the country.
“The James Beard Foundation is a big proponent of regional food,” Carroll pointed out. “So they help us promote nationally what makes our regional cuisine unique.”
The icing on the cake is that the money raised from the event goes toward a culinary school scholarship: the “Bentonville High South Scholarship Fund,” which is awarded to either an Arkansan or an Arkansas culinary program student.
Which brings me to my second takeaway of the evening: a better understanding of the term “High South” and the part it plays in shaping the fast-growing Bentonville food scene.
Once the dinner was in full swing—six different serving stations were set up allowing diners to pick up plated dishes and bring them back to a table stocked with bottles of wine—the emcee for the evening, Case Dighero, director of culinary services at the Museum, began asking some of the chefs what “High South” cuisine meant to them.
For his part, Dighero had defined “High South” cuisine as the rustic style of cooking of the Ozarks handed down from generation to generation.
From the chefs I learned that “High South” wasn’t necessarily about any one of their particular cooking styles, but was instead more of a take on the local ingredients they were committed to using to prepare their food.
“It’s about the region…the dirt…what’s grown here,” offered The Hive’s McClure. “I think Arkansas has an incredible food story to tell, we don’t have a legacy of great restaurants like New Orleans or New York, but we’ve got great ingredients and that’s what we have over a lot of different places.”
“To have this new talent coming in and putting these ingredients together in their own ways inspires me,” he added.
“High South” ingredients featured prominently in all of the evening’s menu items, which included:
Elderberry and hibiscus-cured Alaskan King Salmon with fennel salad, Calabrian chiles, yuzu and mostarda (Cooper)
Duck carnitas with KYYA chocolate-pumpkin seed mole, black apple-butternut salsa, duck skin chicharrón, and Arkansas rice flour crêpe (Lyle)
A pork merguez (a North African sausage typically prepared with beef or lamb) with autumn squash, fermented apples and yogurt. (McClure)
Coffee and balsamic-glazed and applewood-smoked Mason Creek Farm pork belly with pickled vegetables, High South granola, and scorpion pepper-black apple hot sauce (Nelson)
Roasted turkey roulade with braised greens, cornbread purée, turkey jus, cranberry and apple (Robertshaw)
Sourdough bread pudding with A&A Orchard apples, leeks, dates and sage (Wetzel)
Apple galette with toasted salted caramel marshmallow, created by Northwest Arkansas Community College’s teaching chef Anna Bock
While every dish was outstanding, and picking a favorite is impossible, I’m now completely obsessed with cornbread purée—something I had never tasted before or even thought possible. It was a component of Chef Robertshaw’s dish and I’ve been assured it will feature prominently in a duck-based dish at the new Pressroom location. I’m currently campaigning to convince him to sell it by the gallon.