James Beard benefit dinner brings out the star chefs

Butcher & the Boar chef Jack Riebel's bacon-wrapped sweetbreads
Butcher & the Boar chef Jack Riebel's bacon-wrapped sweetbreads

Last night, on the bluffs in Mendota Heights, the James Beard Foundation, in conjunction with Le Cordon Bleu and Mpls/St.Paul magazine, hosted a benefit dinner in which eight of the Twin Cities most regarded chefs prepared a multiple-course, roaming tasting menu. Guests could nibble their way from kitchen to kitchen, watching the chefs work with students as they prepared the food throughout the evening. The event raised money for the foundation's many educational programs and scholarship funds. 

Guests were able to watch through the kitchen windows as chefs like Thomas Kim of the Left Handed Cook mentored students on how to prepare and construct dishes like his fried "3 Lil Pigs" -- polenta cakes with a ragu of pigs ears, neck, and belly. Chef Mike Brown of the show-stealing restaurant Travail could be seen explaining to students how to prepare the multiple-step ritual that was their tasting dish.

Other chefs included Heartland's Lenny Russo, who prepared a fennel-cured Lake Superior whitefish with a North Dakota paddlefish caviar with aquavit creme fraiche served on a buckwheat blini. Saffron's Sameh Wadi brought a decadent foie gras and porchini mushroom croquette to the party, and the Salty Tart's Michelle Gayer prepared a boozy little dessert snack of a pear and brown butter gallette with a vanilla bean and rye bourbon whip.

The folks at Travail, clearly with no understanding of the word restraint (which we mean in a good way), went all out preparing an outrageous dish that diners had to physically wear. Guests had to first slip a metal contraption onto their index finger. On one side, affixed to the ornate wire jewelry, was a beautiful little piece of sous vide rib eye, and on the other a piece of marinated fluke.Your thumb then received a generous dab of foie gras curd with a hat of rehydrated cranberries and pop rocks. The "dish" even had it's own dessert component, which literally left diners blowing smoke. Once you had devoured the three-pronged masterpiece, you were given a small bit of frozen yogurt that had been flash frozen using CO2 and then left to rest in liquid nitrogen to "set." After eating the yogurt, diners were urged to blow out so that they could catch a glimpse of their own breath, something Minnesotans are probably all too familiar with.

Despite Travail's grand show, in our opinion the winning dish of the night went to chef Jack Riebel. His smoked, bacon wrapped veal sweetbreads with pineapple and jalapeno were quintessential Riebel. He's got the unique ability to either take something lowbrow and bring it into the lap of luxury (check out the footlong hot dog at Butcher & the Boar), or he can take a seemingly  more highbrow or less familiar food item and make it something that anybody would be willing to nosh on. Several diners stood around contemplating what sweetbreads were, but only after having lovingly scarfed them down.

In addition to the chefs' dishes, Technique, the student-operated restaurant at Le Cordon Bleu, prepared a variety of appetizers and canapes under the watchful eyes of chefs Jason Ross and Kenneth Goff. Dishes like scallop on rye with pink peppercorns and herbs, Reuben wantons, duck confit spring rolls, and escargot-stuffed new potatoes could be seen floating around the dining room.

The chefs in attendance also each had their own eight-top chef's table where diners could bid on which chef they wanted to prepare a separate four-course meal for their table. The standard ticket holders could then sit and stare through the windows and jealously watch as the people at the chef's tables were luxuriously wined and dined.

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Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts

1315 Mendota Heights Road
Mendota Heights, MN 55120


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