It was like dinner with 62 of your closest friends. Except that some of the country's most talented chefs were doing the cooking. And Maker's Mark was pouring. And someone lovely was washing the dishes for the six-course meal that included seven glasses per guest.
That's 56 glasses for each of the tables for eight in a glassed-in dining room at The Farmhouse at the Kentucky Horse Park.
But the James Beard $300-a-plate dinner hasn't started yet because everybody is in the cozy, well-worn living room noshing on smoked Kentucky trout mousse with Kenny's Herb Havarti pâte à choux while tasting the Sheltowee Farm mushroom soup with sherry crème fraiche.
It is part of the nightly Celeb rity Chef Dinner Series at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. The meals are a celebration of the James Beard Foundation award-winning chefs who've come to the Bluegrass to integrate Kentucky products into their specialties and to help three charities: the Kentucky Horse Park Foundation, the James Beard Foundation and the World Games 2010 Foundation.
The kitchen is not like the chaotic ones with dueling egos that are on TV. Tuesday night's celeb rity chefs — Paul Kahan, executive chef and co-owner of four restaurants in Chicago, including nationally renowned Blackbird; and Celina Tio, executive chef and owner of Julian in Kansas City, Mo., and a recent contestant on the Food Network's The Next Iron Chef — prep their dishes calmly.
The usually busy businessman Kahan explains, as he dices pears perfectly and tosses them in lemon, that "sometimes I do these events so I can get away and cook."
Kahan is steaming fried Tuscan kale with puffed raw wild rice he's tossed with Bosc pears and generously placed atop a stuffed bobwhite quail on a stick.
"I know I can cook good food," he says. "But for these events, I like to go out of the box." He throws the quail into the deep fryer and out comes something like a "quail dog." He'll team it with blood sausage — his dad owned a deli, he explained — and "it's move-forward cuisine."
It's also the second course, once you schmear some celeriac root cream under it all.
Actually, when the time comes, it's Tio who will do the schmearing. It's that kind of camaraderie back here. All the chefs, including Lexington's host chef for the night, Justin Thompson of Jean Farris Winery and Bistro, says the meal came together effortlessly.
That is, if you don't count the momentary eyebrow-raising when Thompson mentioned that freshwater prawns from Kentucky lakes near Tennessee would be a great first course.
Tio is pleased to oblige. She makes them as she did on the Iron Chef episode. Asked why they were not using bourbon in their recipes, the out-of-town Beard Award-winning chefs each replied: "I drink bourbon."
In fact, Tio says she comes to Kentucky all the time to buy it, by the barrel, for her restaurant.
Sneakers to finery
Dinner starts with the prawn flourish. Guests are dressed in everything from jeans and boots, sneakers even, to finery and heels. In the kitchen, the line to plate the food is made up of celebrity chefs, the sous chefs they brought with them, a volunteer from the paid food service who is working unpaid overtime to learn from the best, and three advanced students from Sullivan University.
Marie Taaffe, one of the students, says, echoing the athletes at the Games, that serving with these famous chefs night after night has been like "going to the Olympics for me. Seeing their different techniques with the same ingredients and watching them work, it's been wonderful."
Tio wants two parallel lines to keep the food as warm as possible from kitchen to table. Not two minutes after the final plate goes out, the dining room manager announces to the wait staff that they can start picking up plates. Then this: "Ten to 12 minutes to next course."
The chef in charge issues almost silent orders about who will do what and how the plate is to look, down to how the plate is to be turned toward the guest.
And so it goes for all six courses, with even the dishwashers telling the chefs when a plate has an errant herb hanging unflatteringly off to the side and shouldn't be served to the guest.
At table three, the fourth course of braised Stone Cross Farm pork belly with maple heirloom apples, preserved white truffle, deep-fried grit bar and crispy chocolate is drawing exclamations of delight. No one at the table had eaten pork belly, so they were looking forward to comparing it to the "bacon lardons" they're getting with the short ribs in the next course.
And who among them doesn't think the celery, the apples, the chocolate and the pork isn't just genius?
Jeff and Mary Lynn Garrett of Lexington are trying one of everything at the Games: one eventing thing, one vaulting thing, one dressage thing, one dinner, you get it. So, yes, one pork belly dish is just great.
Bart McFarland of Paris, the one in Kentucky, is thrilled with the Angus beef. Could have eaten two of those.
When dessert comes, wait staff member Dianne Weeks of Lexington graciously and generously keeps everyone moving. She leans in sweetly: "I think you're going to want to use that utensil," as she points to a large spoon.
It was like all were kings in the sports of kings dinner hall. It was like $300 bought you a realm.
For a while.
When the meal was done after three hours, the chefs signed autographs in the kitchen and took their bows in the dining room. The guests got a ride to their vehicles in golf carts that had been outfitted with blankets to ward against the night's chill.
As if the cocktails, the seven glasses of wine and the six-course extravaganza weren't armor enough.