For the second time within a year, a group of Indianapolis chefs are making their way to New York City to prepare a meal for the James Beard House. The James Beard House is owned and operated by the James Beard Foundation, which annually gives out awards to restaurants, chefs, restaurateurs and many other aspects of the cuisine world, and holds in its hands the possibility to put any of them in the spotlight. This is another step toward putting Indiana chefs in that spotlight.
R.J. Wall, who heads up the supper club series Chefs’ Night Off, hand picked the four chefs that will represent our state during the dinner which will take place December 2. Wall, who has worked closely with nearly every chef in the city, chose Abbi Merriss of Bluebeard, Craig Baker of The Local, Bent Rail Brewery and Plow & Anchor, Alan Sternberg of Cerulean and Pat Niebling from Three Floyd’s in Munster.
“There were people, you know chefs, that I still wanted to get out to New York and share with the people at James Beard,” Wall tells me when I ask why he chose these four chefs, “I really think they’re all fully equipped to cook at the James Beard House and to represent Indiana.” He is on his way home from a Chefs’ Night Off at The Golden in Fort Wayne which highlighted four more Indiana chefs; Wall spends much of his time promoting the chefs around the city. “Many of them were the people I felt I had been forced to leave out last time and there is just so much talent that needs to be shared out there.
“You know, I understand this isn’t going to get us a James Beard Award or anything like that. But I see it as an opportunity to get the chefs out to New York and to enjoy themselves and to see new things and see what chefs are doing in New York. Plus, they get to cook at the James Beard House, which is awesome.”
It is awesome, not only for these chefs, but also for you and me and everyone in this city and state.
It allows us to easily recognize the high-caliber chefs in our state, a major example of this is Pat Niebling from Three Floyds. The name Three Floyds is synonymous with great beer, especially since the Munster-based brewery has been named the "best brewery in the world" multiple times. Most beer drinkers will quickly order an Alpha King, Zombie Dust, Gumballhead or one of their many beer offerings off any menu they happen to show up on.
What most people don’t realize is that the trip to Munster is well worth it to simply get a taste of the food on the menu. In all honesty it’s hard to say which is better, the food or the beer, it’s easy to say having them together is divine. As Wall says, “When people think Three Floyds they automatically think of beer. Nobody ever talks about the food at Three Floyds. Their food program is outstanding and it deserves to be seen as its own thing, its own entity.” With his inclusion of Niebling, it may be seen that way soon.
Recnetly the four chefs came together in the parking lot of the Old National Centre to create a preview meal for anyone lucky enough to show up and get a taste. Alan Sternberg created a shawarma-styled cauliflower for the event; when I reached to him via email he explained his choice and what it was like working with the three other chefs. “Honestly we kind of took a loose theme and ran with it [at Old National Centre]. I'm taking the entree in New York so I figured I would take a veg dish.
“With all the other things I've done this year it always seems pretty easy to work with other chefs. I try to walk into it with the mindset that we'll all see things differently and each situation is unique. It's been really rewarding to get input and hear other chefs' ideas about something I might view one way and they view another. Overall I'd say it's really been productive.”
Sternberg is hosting a James Beard Foundation dinner at his restaurant on October 17, but he views this trip as something entirely separate. “I've been wanting to go to the Beard House for a long time,” he tells me. “I set some goals for myself when I was 23-ish and that was one of them. I know it's not an award or anything, but it is kind of hallowed ground and a place in my industry's history. It's like visiting the White House. You don't have to do it to be American but it's exciting when you do.”
For Sternberg and the other Indiana chefs it is an incredible opportunity to further their personal skills, to learn what is happening in New York’s food scene and to share everything going on in Indianapolis’ food scene. But, they are looking at it with a realistic mindset. According to Sternberg, “I don't know if it means anything, but it's fun to get outside of our state. I think a lot of the time we cheerlead from here and say why doesn't this person or that person come to Indy, but I don't think the outside knows who the players are.
“That's one of the reasons I really enjoy doing dinners and events away from here is to meet new people and make friends. I'm doing a dinner in Detroit next year because I met a chef up there at a fundraiser last year. I guess, it's important because it's an opportunity for us to grow our networks and establish friends in other cities.
“I don't think anyone is expecting to go to New York and show them something completely new. It's New York after all. If we can go, put on a great meal, share ourselves and our story a little bit, then that's enough. If we can make some friends and pick up some inspiration from eating or staging, that's tangible experiences that we can come home with and help grow our city more.”
And that is truly what this is about, what it stands to accomplish for our city. As Wall explains, it is a way for us to grow and see our full potential in the years to come. “We’ve got a ton of talent in this city!” he says. “Are we Charlotte or Nashville? No, we aren’t, but we’re heading that way. We may be five to eight years off from it, but we have to mature, grow and cultivate what we have and I think we’re doing that. I think Indianapolis is going to look very different in ten years when it comes to food.”
Much like it did a year ago, this dinner will help remind people in high places that Indiana chefs are pushing and working to make this city a dining destination.
As Sternberg points out, dinners like this allow chefs like Merriss, Baker, Niebling and himself the opportunity to further themselves. “I've been blessed to have so many great opportunities the last couple of years and I've grown immeasurably because of it. Things like going to the Beard awards, traveling, eating, staging, doing pop-ups and working with great friends has really helped keep my energy level high and for me to grow a lot in such a short time.” This, in turn, allows them to further the level and quality of food being made in our city.