For the second year, the James Beard Foundation's Taste America: "Local Flavor from Coast to Coast" tour made a stop in the Valley for a benefit dinner of epic proportions. The A Night of Culinary Stars dinner, presented by Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa Signature, was held last Friday at the Royal Palms Resort and Spa and featured picture-perfect plates from seven of the top local chefs.
This year, events in Phoenix and Atlanta kicked off the first weekend of the five-week, ten-city national tour. In each city, the foundation holds a benefit dinner featuring Taste America All-Star chefs, local James Beard Foundation Award-winning chefs, and culinary celebrities, as well as celebrity chef appearances, cooking demonstrations, book signings, and tastings.
We were invited to join the sold-out crowd for the evening, which began with a welcome reception featuring small plates from five Phoenix chefs. While enjoying glasses of beer, wine, and cider, attendees mixed, mingled, and tasted some of our local chef's best dishes.
Crudo's Cullen Campbell presented Ahi tuna with bone marrow, smoked truffle, and grapes, making for quite a luxurious way to start the night. On the other side of the crowded room, chef Josh Hebert dished up his playful Uni cheesecake with seaweed and ponzu, a fan-favorite dish we've tasted before at other big culinary events.
In honor of Mexican Independence Day, which fell on the Saturday following the event, chef Silvana Salcido Esparza offered diners a small taste of Chiles en Nogada. The rustic dish included a small roasted poblano pepper filled with chicken and fruit. Covered in an almond cream reduction and sprinkled with tart pomegranate seeds, the small bite perfectly conveyed Esparza's one-of-a-kind style of Mexican cuisine.
Chefs Gio Osso and Charleen Badman, of Virtu Honest Craft and FnB respectively, each brought one of their best-known dishes to the event. In Osso's case that meant the Charred Spanish Octopus that's quickly become a signature offering at his 15-month-old Scottsdale restaurant. Badman, on the other hand, dished up her Tuscan Kale falafel with Meyer lemon tahini. It may not be as famous as her leeks, but this dish has quickly become one of our favorite starters at FnB.
After an hour, the party moved from the reception ballroom into the dining room, a well-decorated space packed with round tables for guests. During the three-course dinner, attendees were able to continue bidding on a number of silent auction prizes as well as participate in an entertaining live auction for prizes such as a dinner prepared by chef Charleen Badman on Rabbit Island and a party catered by chef Silvana Esparza -- which she bumped up to include 40 guests mid-bidding.
The first course of the dinner came from Taste America All-Star Chef, Sherry Yard of iPic Entertainment and Helms Bakery in Los Angeles. Yard brought a savory sheep's curd soufle to the table, which came with lamb's lettuce, smoked braeburn apple, a fat slices of uncinatum truffles. The photo-worthy dish was a nice, light way to start the meal -- particularly after having sampled so many small dishes already.
Course two was our favorite of the night; a familiar one put forth by host chef Paul McCabe. We'd already tried the chef's Organic Corn Agnolotti made with butter poached lobster and chanterelles, but this time around McCabe added smoked char roe to the dish. The extra boost of salt elevated what we already thought was a perfect dish and played nicely off the sweetness of the corn.
Three time James Beard Award-semifinalist Kevin Binkley presented diners with a plate of duck three ways for the final course. The three perfectly-tender pieces of duck were some of the best we've ever tasted -- so flavorful we hardly felt the need to use the sauces presented alongside. We didn't, however, skip over the delicate and subtle horseradish rillettes popover that came as a side.
Before the evening moved out to the courtyard for dessert, guest MC and James Beard Award winning chef Robert McGrath also presented the participating chefs with commemorative plates given on behalf of the foundation.
Finally the crowd made its way outside for the event's dramatic conclusion. While sipping on champagne and enjoying an impressive spread of desserts from chef Yard, a surprise firework show lit up the sky over the resort. We'd never seen fireworks from such close proximity (so close we briefly thought to ask to see the hotel's permit for the showcase), but it made for an impressive finale nonetheless.
Those who weren't already stuffed from the reception and dinner left to peruse the several tables of dessert options: Cinnamon Cotton Candy, a Cookie Station, and Warm Beignets with Yuzu Jasmine Cream. We loved that the event's flow let attendees get up, stretch their legs, and keep eating and drinking after the hours-long dinner.
With this year's festivities including so many of the Valley's popular chefs, the dinner offered a real taste of the Valley's culinary landscape. Each chef seemed to offer a dish that well-represented his or her style of cuisines, making the night an impressive lineup of local tastes.