Chef Nikky’s James Beard Reflections


Chef Nikky’s James Beard Reflections

The day at the James Beard House (JBH) felt like home. It had a nice, clean, well-stocked kitchen that provided everything within reach and felt like the old Asian Mint kitchen before our expansion. It only took two steps to retrieve anything we needed. Sharing prep space, working in synchronization, observing the colors of the vegetables we were cutting and inhaling the smell of lemongrass and fresh chili made it feel like we were cooking in Thailand.

The feelings we experienced that day were a combination of nerves and calm all bundled into one energy. You could feel the level of excitement in each of us as we were getting to chop in the House! It was such an honor to be doing anything there. You could close your eyes and feel present and past chefs’ energy and their spirits watching over us. When we would think to look for or ask for something, it would suddenly appear in the space where it needed to be. The attentive staff of the JBH had a lot to do with that, too. All in all, the vine was zen with a complete sense of full awareness.

As it started to get closer to service time, the level of excitement escalated. The president of JBH, Susan Urgury, came down to talk to us and requested to take a photo with us in our custom made Asian Mint & JBH t-shirts. We were very excited to be able to represent Thai Cuisine in an elevated presentation lead by women chefs. It was a proud moment, I have to say. We then changed into our whites and green Asian Mint aprons and prepped our minds to be ready to execute a five-course meal in two hours to 80 guests.

It was a success as nine pairs of hands worked the line and prepped the next course one after the other. The first course, which were Thai herbal wraps, had to be composed upstairs on tables during cocktail time.

The event started with a cocktail half hour in an enclosed glass patio. Guests enjoyed a nice balance of palette wetting flavors of sweet, spicy and sour. The course included Thai shrimp ceviche hors d’oeuvres in cucumber cups, Tom Kha soup served in demitasse cups and kratong tong, and golden boats of coconut, chicken and corn filling.

The starter wines also got guests appetites going. Everybody was mingling and talking about how they ended up at the dinner. The tables were filled with a balance of friends of the chefs, press, and Thai food and wine enthusiasts, which all shared the same curiosity and support of how everything came together, specifically from Texas, nonetheless.

As everyone was ushered to the tables, Sylvia began the dinner with an introduction explaining the theme of Loy Kratong. Next, I shared my family’s personal experience of Loy Kratong.

Before I knew it, we were gearing up for the ride of a lifetime as guests started noshing on the first course. The Thai Herbal Wraps were presented in two shot glasses filled with an explosion of flavors that embodied the 5 flavor profiles of sweet, sour, spicy, salty, and bitter, rounded out with some natural fats from nuts. The earthy leaf was filled with sweet and sour tamarind sauce, toasted coconut flakes, half inch cubes of a lime, roasted peanut, cubes of purple shallot, cubes of ginger, and a side of red Thai bird chili of the daring hearts.

The second course began as the first course was still being enjoyed. Our tomato crudités were presented on a plate that showcased the beauty of nature’s international vegetables and was dipped with our Thai spiced chicken tomato dip, Nam Prik Ong, and crispy pork rinds. The vegetables selected ranged from New York grown yellow baby carrots to Persian cucumbers, Asian chive flowers to deep green broccolini, and Romanesque cauliflower to green Thai eggplants. The contrasting green vegetables surrounding the red sauce in the middle was conceptualized with a two-tone idea in mind. The appearance of the plate presentation was a complete dream come true.

As we departed from light appetizers and moved towards the main event, we served stuffed squid, called Pla Muk Yud Sai. Our biggest concern with this dish was the execution of the squid itself, due to its cook time, fishy taste and toughness. We went through at least ten variations of this dish before we decided on the best prep application. We stuffed the squid with the perfect ratio of pork and shrimp so it would be at its most tender and juiciest flavors before it was time to serve it. The color landscape for this dish was to mimic the idea of a squid swimming through brightly colored coral reefs and green seaweed in the colorful Thailand shores. Sliced squid laid on a bed of pickled stripe beets and was topped with a traditional seafood chili lime dressing, salty fingers, rock chive cress, and an edible karma purple orchid next to fried squid tentacles.

Our main course was a mind-blowing dish that included Texas Raised Wagyu Beef with Panang curry and yellow curry fried rice. The remarkable part of this dish was the complexity of its execution. There were so many components, but yet when you looked at it, it was like experiencing a movie “ratatouille” that reminded you of not one but two events. It embraced comfort flavors of the first time you fell in love with Thai curry and dining in an upscale steak house. It took great concentration from our team when preparing this dish because we used a laser to perfect the temperature of the meat. We completed the presentation of this dish by placing it atop my favorite fried rice, Thai crab fried rice, which was topped with an intense Panang curry reduction to match the full flavor of the Thai marinated Wagyu Beef. We then rounded out the plating with crispy fried up cheffardaded Kefir lime leaves that turned bright green atop the white Gastronomic Wagyu Beef Fat Powder, which was heavily sprinkled across the dish in a diagonal line. Lastly, we topped it off with individually balled crispy red chili thread. The Malbec wine that was served with this dish pleased the diners and made them realize that Thai Food goes very well with wine when paired correctly. 

Last, but not least, the plate we started building from the beginning was served at the end of the dinner. The inspiration of this dish was born from my love of Thai desserts growing up. All of the late nights and early morning hours it took for us to hand-make one hundred flower lychee jelly molds that mimicked flowers from another world in a glass paperweight was well worth it. Hand carrying the desserts to New York City and checking on them like new born babies was quite the experience. When the course was served, the head waiter and staff at the JBH were so impressed by the desserts that they said it was “the most beautiful dessert they had ever seen at the James Beard House.” Diners also exclaimed that the dessert was too beautiful to eat.

As I tear up writing this next part, the people that made this dish come together were the ones in my life that inspired my creativity in art of food, fashion, and visuals. With that said, I featured the Unalome symbol, which resembles the path to enlightenment. The bottom spiral illustrates the struggle of life that gets straighter as one progresses on the path and finally reaches their enlightenment or Nirvana. The Unalome was made of a coconut palm sugar reduction that represents the taste of the main base sauce for most Thai desserts and was tinted in yellowish gold. The center stage of the plate showcased the lychee flower jelly that was carefully unmolded and perfectly placed on the plate to balance the crescent moon on the left side of it. This moon was a Thai flowery path composed of bright pink sticky coconut rice, cubed yellow mangoes, cubed green papaya, cream colored Thai candle smoked flower cookies and light green mini tapioca balls, garnished with green micro mint and red shiso leaves. I could imagine fairies happily lounging out in a Thai forest that I created and wowing little girls and inspiring them to be creative in their lives and enjoy the sweetness, sourness, and colorfulness of it all (#enjoylife). The bright colors used in this dish reminded me of when I first started baking cakes at the age of 8. It was the color of the rainbow that inspired me because it all came full circle.

The adrenaline rush came when the final dish was completed. We presented the dish to the guests ourselves and were able to experience first-hand the happiness we were able to bring to the diners’ hearts and faces that evening. It lit up the dark ambiance in the room with wows and awes of curiosity from them seeing the flower jelly again. Most guests thought it was a real flower and didn’t dare eat it. Flashes from cameras were going off everywhere and conversations got louder as guests tried to deconstruct what was in front of them. It was a delight, to say the least, to touch people’s hearts that way. So many emotions were brought out in every course, while still staying in line to true comfort flavors, which were elevated in a manner only suitable to be presented to Mr. James Beard, Julia Child herself, and their closest friends.

I feel blessed and humbled for the opportunity to be able to share this experience with my team members, which encouraged me to do in my heart what I desire creatively and truthfully. I hope this essay allows you to close your eyes and imagine this day forever in your soul.

 

 

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