Contributing Editor Meryle Evans' report.
Among the multitude of honors bestowed on culinary luminaries at this spring’s annual James Beard Foundation awards, several artisan bakers brought a flourish of flour power to the proceedings. Jim Lahey, pioneer bread craftsman and proprietor of Manhattan’s esteemed Sullivan Street Bakery, was named to the Who’s Who of Food and Beverage, and Sarah Owens, won the book award in the Baking and Desserts category for Sourdough: Rustic Recipes for Fermented Breads, Sweets, Savories, and More. Top honors also went to Joanne Chang, Flour Bakery, Boston, for Outstanding Baker, and to Dahlia Narvaez, Osteria Mozza, Los Angeles, for Outstanding Pastry Chef.
Lahey, trained as a sculptor, learned the art of bread making in Italy, and opened the Sullivan Street Bakery in 1994, winning acclaim for his sourdough loaves and pizzas, and igniting a revolution in home baking with his innovative no-knead bread technique. Across the river in Brooklyn, Sarah Owens, a ceramic artist and horticulturalist, who was chief ‘rosarian’ in charge of the roses at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens from 2009 until this year, also launched a career in baking with sourdough leavening. Owens founded her on-order bakery, BK 17, she says, “to bring back real bread to Brooklyn.” Her book, which combines interests in gardening and baking, is beautifully illustrated, Owens explains, “with images of grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, even weeds I use; it is a sensory journey through my garden and into the kitchen.” That journey is evidenced by recipes for Butternut Squash and Cherry Bread, Bacon and Sage Cornbread, and Carrot Pineapple Donuts with Tamarind Icing.
Another career changer, Joanne Chang, a Harvard-educated mathematician, left the business world for the kitchen in the 1990’s , working with top Boston chefs before opening the first Flour Bakery & Café in 2000. Now there are four Boston locations, three cookbooks, and plans for additional restaurant ventures. Dahlia Narvaez, on the other hand, a native Angelena, grew up as the cook in her family, and quickly found a mentor in Nancy Silverton at Campanile. Now Executive Pastry Chef for all of Silverton’s Mozza enterprises, Narvaez is noted for her rustic Italian desserts like rosemary olive oil cake and bombolini.
Many Beard Award winners were among the reception chefs, each of whom was asked to create a dish inspired by their favorite television show or character, riffing on the theme of this year’s event: celebrating food throughout television history. At the Gala in Chicago on May 2, Lahey, doubling as honoree and chef, channeled Inspector George Gently with Banoffee Pie, the rich banana, cream, and toffee dessert created in England 45 years ago; while Diane Yang, of Spoon & Stable, Minneapolis, offered Grapefruit Curd with Vanilla Chantilly and Crispy Thyme Meringue, a homage to “Pinky Brewster; I’d make her a fantastical birthday cake to match her fun, whimsical personality.”
At the Book Awards reception, held in New York on April 26th, a handful of prominent pastry chefs matched their desserts to TV favorites: Marc Aumont, Gabriel Kreuther, NYC, presented McGyver Mille Feuille Verine; SpongeBob SquarePants inspired JBF Board Chairman Emily Luchetti’s Caramel-roasted Pineapple Sundaes with Pistachios and Coconut; Carla Tomasko, Bacchanalia, Atlanta, offered wicked Strawberry Hand Pies with Cornmeal, Hibiscus and Chile, based on Once Upon a Time; Gramercy Tavern, NYC, Miro Uskokovic’s Rhubarb-Lemon Tarts with Pistachios, Basil, and Pink Peppercorn Meringue, were a tribute to Martha Stewart. Ferrara Bakery Cannoli, and Breads Bakery Rugelach, both from New York, were represented by Foody Direct, an online delivery service of iconic favorites from a roster of over 100 restaurants across the country. James Beard, who became one of America’s first TV stars with his pioneering 1946 show I Love to Eat, would certainly have applauded the selection of delectable desserts.