Walking around New York as a born-and-raised Hoosier, you have to constantly remind yourself that the city inspired the fiction that used it as a set, not the other way around. Fictional Gordon Gekko dominated real Wall Street. Fictional Holly Golightly walked down real Fifth Avenue. The scenery on which directors paint our favorite stories is right there in front of you, and yet the city feels as much like a celebrity as Hepburn ever did — and more dimensional and legendary than all the stars on the Walk of Fame combined. Mention that you’re going to any Hoosier and they’ll name a friend or family member who has moved there with reverence, like they might a combat-worn soldier. Brushes with celebrity, like when Louis CK dropped in to do a set while some Hoosier Beard House diners took in a late Wednesday show at the Comedy Cellar, make it seem like anything is possible with dogged dedication and good timing. And the city’s fierce reputation for chewing up and spitting out those unprepared to meet her challenges has an effect of lionizing the people who get to be a part of her most famous traditions.
Listening to the group of Hoosier chefs talk over dinner, however, you might mistake them for tattooed farmers, not the much-lauded semi-celebrities from their home cities. As I sat in the middle of a long table at Mission Chinese Food with chefs Jonathan Brooks, David Tallent, Peter Schmutte, and Chris Eley (Aaron Butts dined with his lovely family that night), I expected them to talk prep strategy or platings. Instead, they chatted about the prices of citrus in the midst of a brutal California drought. They asked Schmutte if he picked up anything cool at a restaurant supply store. He didn’t. They politely asked Mission Chinese wait staff questions about the drinks available. They didn’t mention a strong preference. They sipped cocktails and beers, passed plates and occasionally commented on the dishes being brought out. Mostly it was just a lot of pleased grunting, brief summations of each dish’s flavor profile (“super bright,” “the mapo is insane”), interspersed with the expected, touristy thumbs-ups/thumbs-downs on the city’s sights and restaurants.
Still, the discussion rarely circled back around to the dinner they planned on cooking the next day at the historic house once owned by America’s most ground-breaking chef. Instead, they're talking about missing their kids' first days of school, about liquor distribution problems, general business. They made jokes about drinking way too much at Holiday, a great dive bar owned by a friend of Thunderbird owner Joshua Gonzales.
When Chefs Night Off's RJ Wall started in with a familiar line of questions about prep times at the James Beard House, they were mostly quiet. Peter Schmutte shook his head. Barman Joshua Gonzales needed limes. Chef David Tallent was slightly concerned about the fate of a few flats of live micro greens. Chris Eley shrugged and drawled exactly three words: "I'm good, man."
The first time I saw this group of people preparing for the James Beard Dinner, it was at the Joseph Decuis wagyu farm for a sold-out crowd of about 130 people. They cooked all their dishes outdoors on open spits and open flames, plated them on picnic tables and watched their creations be carried down a gravel road and placed in a barn that was transformed into a dining room for the night. But more impressive than the dishes themselves was watching five chefs, all at the top of their game in a scene that loudly celebrated their individual accomplishments, jump in and help each other cook and plate as if they'd been working on the same line together for years—no yelling, or excess pressure, just a job that needed to get done. And it was done exceptionally well.
It turns out that you do not get ahead in the Hoosier food scene these days by imitating Gordon Ramsay. And although it's always been a dream of mine to hold two pieces of bread against an obtuse person's head and make them declare themselves an idiot sandwich, a chef with an attitude like that wouldn't last long in this group. If I learned anything about the rules of Hoosier hospitality on this trip, the first three would probably be, “1. Don’t be an asshole. 2. Help when you’re needed. 3. Get and keep your shit together.”
When I arrived at the James Beard House on the lower west side of Manhattan Thursday night, the mood in the kitchen was high-energy but overwhelmingly calm. It felt much like watching athletes at the Olympics: a lot of focused gazes and precise, practiced movements. Think all of the excitement of track and field speed and with a healthy dose of figure skating artistry, with almost none of the ego and drama (although barman Joshua Gonzales, for his part, did not remove his signature and subtly mocking “Vodka Soda” hat for the event, his way of having some fun at the expense of patrons who come into craft cocktail bars and then intentionally avoid flavor of any kind).
The five heads chosen for the kitchen and the one behind the bar kept their cool, exactly as they’re known to be in their own shops. Former Restaurant Tallent sous chef and current Plow & Anchor exec Toby Moreno remarked that the first thing he noticed about the Bloomington kitchen was how quiet it was, save for clanging pans and searing food. Milktooth diners can sit feet from the hot line and have low-volume, easy conversation. Nothing but common kitchen noise escapes from Schmutte’s open corner of the back of house that juts into Cerulean’s placid dining room.
The right balance of professional confidence and cooperation should predispose a kitchen (or any workplace) to calm, not chaos. From the low volume coming from the kitchen deep into the cooking portion of the night, I could tell that RJ Wall had chosen the right chefs to take on this challenge.
There was something familiar and ultimately Hoosier about cooking this meal in an actual person’s home. And not just any person, but the chef who first had a cooking show, who was the first to collect all of America’s regional culinary quirks and traditions and declare the patchwork of flavors “American Cuisine.” To have chefs there representing a state known for our hospitality was as logical as using film and television to broadcast cooking demonstrations into homes across the US.
For me, the dinner was familiarly perfect: Joshua Gonzales mixed balanced, perfectly-paired cocktails. Chris Eley took everything there is to love and taste in a goose and condensed it to a single perfect bite. There was Dave Tallent’s, well, talented, thoughtful approach in every bite. Jonathan Brooks perfectly executed his gift for taking the familiar and supercharging it with novelty. Aaron Butts remained to the good news of wagyu what Pope Francis is to the word of God. And Peter Schmutte, in the face of 70 stuffed diners, served a dessert that was impossible to leave unfinished and criminal not to photograph.
After dinner, the chefs and bartender were presented with certificates by the Beard Foundation to recognize the accomplishment it is to cook at the Beard house. After we had filed outside to catch some air and have a few cigarettes, some of the chefs drifted magnetically back to the kitchen to mingle. Butts' daughter took the opportunity to throw a few slices of zucchini on the historic stove, and her dad leaned across the bar to demonstrate a textbook wrist-flick of the pan. There was beer and laughs and family, and it felt just like home.
We made plans to meet up at a bar after the Foundation hosts spat us onto the sidewalk at 11 p.m. sharp, just in time to catch the fireworks Donald Trump had commissioned to celebrate a “successful” GOP debate — an event I was doubly grateful to the chefs for sparing me. It felt like watching your home team win and meeting up at a bar later to celebrate with them. There were families having fun on the field after the game and a celebration in order. Then at that bar, there was little discussion of the dinner itself; that it was outstanding didn’t seem to be particularly pressing to any conversation, though there were plenty of handshakes and hugs.
If I could suggest to our incompetent boob of a governor a couple words that might help define our state, at least as I saw it presented in New York, it would be “honest pride.” Honest pride is what you earn from putting in long hours to become a little better every day. That monastic brand of work-study that you can’t achieve by any other means than racking up those all-important ten thousand hours. Put in enough time and sweat, and you will have the best product, and if you worked your whole life and career to be the best, you deserve to be proud. Joshua Gonzales, Chris Eley, Jonathan Brooks, David Tallent, Aaron Butts and Peter Schmutte deserve to be very proud.
If there was any way to define Hoosier flavors, the best way might be “subject to honesty and change." If the personalities of those that are currently defining it are any indication — and not just the ones who came to the Beard house — the food scene is a reflection of creative curiosity, continuous study of technique and a perfect balance between farm-worn traditions and dazzling innovation. Ultimately, it is rooted in honest sweat, from the farm to the kitchen to the table and even the patrons who put in their own sweat to buy great food. We're not opposed to change, only pretension and hubris. If it sucks, we don't eat it, no matter the hype.
Walking back from a wine bar where the group had convened following the meal at Mission Chinese, Chris Eley and David Tallent walked past the open doors of a bustling noodle shop. The variety of preparations across the diversity of Asian noodles piqued the interest of the chefs, and they wandered into the fluorescent haze of the flour-fogged factory. They inched closer and closer to the men pouring white powder into big tumblers, trying to see if they were soba, udon, alkalized ramen, or something else. An older Asian man in a white uniform and a permanent tired grimace shuffled out of an office and waved off the tall, strange white men like they were birds trying to steal a little product. An hour later, Eley would explain to me in the back of the cab how he’s been across the country visiting his product made by the company he started seven short years ago, how the next “tier” of competition, when they grow that large, may have them competing with megabrand Boars Head. The instinctive motivation to learn more and make a better product — the same instinct that drew both chefs to learn the noodle makers’ secrets — seemed to be the common, honest thread of all of their success.
The best part about the trip to New York wasn’t really even eating the dinner or any of the food (ok, it was a tie), but finding out that the people being praised were, both professionally and personally, worthy of their praise. No one complained about making it back to their home restaurants to work their weekend service. No one expected that the Beard dinner would lead them to anything but a little bit more sustained business, which they seemed to be as thankful for as rookie restaurateurs.
By Friday, Instagram told me that most of them were happily humming away in their home kitchens, churning out weekend specials like nothing had changed. And that's the thing: nothing has
changed. They're going to keep serving James Beard Foundation-quality food at all their restaurants, every day they have their doors open. So don't pine for the New York-quality food you missed. Enjoy a plate of the Indiana-quality food that New York was lucky enough to get on one perfect, warm night in August.