During one amazing week last month, I had two of the meals of the year. Both were created and plated by innovative chefs, both were hosted by people who are proud of Columbus and seek to create community and buzz around our big city small-town scene, and both left me rocking a serious food coma.
Yet, the meals couldn’t have been more different—one was elegant, with shiny, clinking glasses and decadent ingredients, filled with foodies in suits and high-heels. The other—mismatched thrift-store plates and coffee mugs, Chucks and bed-head as the appropriate style.
That one week was everything.
The James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour dinner at Gallerie Bar & Bistro was all glittery celebration—of Columbus, of the region, and of the wealth of ingredients found within the Midwest. Arriving early, I eavesdropped on the clad-in-black servers practicing circling a table and presenting the dishes in one synchronistic swoop, peeked in on an entire room devoted to plating with rows of white dishes, sous chefs hovering in dignified silence, wearing plastic gloves while adding dots of sauce as if on a canvas, and saw a few local culinary luminaries popping in just to help out at the epic event.
Cocktail hour included Watershed drinks created by Curio’s Travis Owens and hors d’oevres that acould outshine most entrées elswhere: short-rib croquettes, lobster in coconut milk with a kiss of chili heat, and other tapas that tasted like small bites of gastronomical bliss.
Gallerie Executive Chef Bill Glover reminisced about how the local Beard dinners came to be: “Two years ago, Jonathan Sawyer was staying here at the Hilton and I invited him down for a beer, and we talked about how we could bring more attention to the region. How we could showcase this part of the country? We need to change the story along I-71; we need more people to tell the story. This is our second annual event, and I get goosebumps. We had this vision, and I’m really proud that we can be a part of your night.”
The meal was progressive, meaning it started with shellfish and then moved through a white meat and a robust red meat and ending with dessert. Each chef was “assigned” a course and then given free reign to showcase their talents. The culinary talents included: Glover, Sawyer, of Cleveland’s Greenhouse Tavern and Trentina, Daniel Wright of Cincinnati’s Senate and Abigail Street, Garrett Lipar of Detroit’s Torino, Spencer Budros of Columbus’s Pistacia Vera, Matt Danko of Cleveland’s Greenhouse Tavern and Noodlecat, Richard DeShantz of Pittsburgh’s Meat & Potatoes and Butcher and the Rye. Wines were chosen and introduced by master sommelier Matt Citriglia.
The whole evening was a whirlwind of oysters, scallops, foie gras, rabbit, venison, pickled pork cheek; a night of ballet moves executed by perfect servers, sighs of contentment, declarations of, “can’t say I’m a rabbit-hater anymore,” and fast friendships at big tables.
The fast friendships continued that weekend when I got the nod to attend the Gourmet Picnic Supper Club Challahdays brunch. The address of the Olde North home was released the night before the meal. Arriving early like Wiley Coyote following the visible aroma snaking through the neighborhood, I stepped into a living and dining room filled with a mishmash of tables—big, small, in the middle of the room, wiggled into the corner—surrounded by office chairs, side chairs, couch banquettes, easy chairs—and Boston Terrier named Gertie flirting with everyone, the click-click-click of her nails on the floors offered notice of new arrivals. The turntable was spinning Tom Tom Club.
In the small kitchen, it was all elbows as guest chef Catie Randazzo of Challah food truck and house helpers—supper club organizers Jacob Holler and Adele Ardrey—played sous chefs. Every possible surface was covered with prep: finished goods, French presses, and Tupperware containers of various sauces and flourishes. Also popping their heads in were other members of the Gourmet Picnic gang, Sara Dixon, Jess Holler and, after providing treats at another gig, baker Perry Wilkoff of Dough Mama.
Amongst the organized chaos, Holler spoke about the event: “This is our fifth month and everyone here is volunteering their time. I love food, I love learning about food, and this is a great opportunity for our community to spark conversation and empower them. This is a collective, and we’re all working collaboratively, the creative juices get flowing. We all share stories and we encourage that.”
Out in the dining areas, eaters strolled in. Gertie sniffed everyone and went about her business. Tables were crowded knee to knee and everyone made conversation. For a moment in time, the heart of the indie food community beat right here. Ardrey placed a French press at each table and a plate of soft buttery biscuits appeared, followed by a pyramid of homemade donuts.
At one point, the smoke alarm went off and produced a giggle, not a panic, the result of a wee kitchen asked for too much at one time. Someone opened the back door and everyone returned to their plates.
The morning wound its way through a salad of winter squash and fresh ricotta, a smoked trout Benedict with pickled beets, and a latke on a homemade English muffin, ending with lush personal pies. There was exhaustive chatter in between dishes, but once the food arrived, a hush descended as people ate slowly, savoring, and forcing compliments through full mouths.
While the meals occupy the opposite ends of the dining experience spectrum, they share the desire to create community, to sing loud and high about the talents of our chefs and the excellence of our ingredients, and to enjoy the bounty of Columbus, both in food and conversation.
Gallerie Bar & Bistro will host another Beard dinner next year, but in the meantime check out the Facebook page for information on the monthly special dinners that highlight the collaboration between Glover’s kitchen and talent from around the city. Gourmet Picnic takes place once a month; visit gourmetpicnic.us for updates. The January event will double as a fundraiser for the art space Mint as it recovers from a recent act of vandalism.