Felicia Willett, pictured above and below in 2012 at the James Beard House, returns to New York City to cook again with seven other local chefs.
In April, eight local chefs will head to New York City to prepare a six-course “Made in Memphis” dinner at the exalted James Beard House. But first, the chefs will test drive such signature dishes as Creole bronzed lemon fish and Tennessee pork with sorghum sauce at a preview dinner Feb. 16 at Felicia Suzanne’s.
“I told everyone from the beginning to do something that would be on your tombstone, something signature and special that speaks from your soul,” said Felicia Willett, chef and owner of Felicia Suzanne’s. “That could be anything, but it was very important to all of us that we use local products.”
An impressive lineup of Memphis chefs will join Willett for both dinners, including Andy Ticer, Michael Hudman, and Ryan Jenniges of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen and Hog & Hominy, Patrick Reilly of the Majestic Grille, Ryan Trimm of Sweet Grass and Southward, Jonathan Magallanes of Las Tortugas, and Miles McMath of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In addition, Michael Hughes from Joe’s Wine and Liquors will pair wines and mix Tennessee-based cocktails for the Memphis and New York events.
Curious to know more about the James Beard House and the lead up to Sunday’s dinner, I asked Willett how chefs prepare for the prestigious undertaking. Here’s what she had to say:
Memphis Stew: How did the upcoming event in April come about?
Felicia Willett: I had such a great experience cooking at the Beard House in 2012 that I wanted to come back and bring my friends. I wanted us to cook as a group and make Memphis shine for more than just barbecue, but also in a way that showcases each chef’s individual talent and style. That’s how the “Made in Memphis” dinner came to be.
I've always wondered how a group of chefs prepares for an event like this. Who plans the menu? Are you free to cook whatever you like?
First we decided that everyone should do a hors d’oeuvre. Then we sort of launched into a dialogue about who should do which course. No one wanted to do dessert, so that fell to me.
Do you know what you will be serving yet?
For the hors d’oeuvres course, I will be serving Chow Chow Deviled Eggs. They’re a crowd favorite at the restaurant, and they’re made with Chow Chow from my Flo’s Homemade Goodness product line. As for dessert, I’m making a classic butter roll with Pritchard’s dark rum sauce, spiced pralines, and buttermilk brown sugar ice cream. I’ll also have bottles of New Orleans Milk Punch and cornmeal madeleines to give out as takeaways.
Q: Do you practice the menu before or does everyone just show up in NYC and wing it?
The preview dinner is our practice; it’s a chance for us to gauge the crowd’s reaction and see if anything needs to be adjusted. But it’s also a fundraiser to help offset our expenses for New York City.
Q: When you are in New York, do you have time to explore restaurants?
Absolutely! Although I’ll be in the kitchen all day April 22 for the actual dinner, I’ll be in New York from April 20-24. I plan on doing lots of exploring.
Q: Do you have favorite NYC restaurants? And if so, please share.
There are so many that it’s hard to list. I try to visit ones that I’ve already been to, but I love trying new ones. Last time I really enjoyed Red Farm, which is a great Asian American place. And I didn’t get to spend enough time at Eataly. It’s just massive and ﬁlled with all types of food. I’m not a big shopper except when it comes to food, so I’m sure I will spend most of the day eating my way through the store.
Q: Is there anything else you would like us to know about the James Beard event?
Just that it’s going to be lots of fun, and I’m really looking forward to cooking for everyone who comes to both the preview dinner and the dinner itself.
James Beard "Made in Memphis" Dinner, Feb. 16, Felicia Suzanne’s, 80 Monroe Ave. (901) 523-0877). Hors d'oeuvres and cocktails at 6 p.m., dinner at 7 p.m.