Inside the James Beard Foundation Dinner at Sea Salt
The truffles were just the beginning of an epicurean adventure with the James Beard Foundation in the heart of Old Naples.
Chefs Fabrizio Aielli and Jason Goddard plate chef Kenny Tufo's hamachi tartare.
Charlie McDonald Photography
On the evening of a momentous James Beard Foundation dinner in early November, Sea Salt in Naples was filled with a tense excitement. The kitchen hummed with urgency as its lineup of chefs—all Gulfshore luminaries—put the final touches on the five-course meal. In the dining room, trays of hors d’oeuvres circulated while the first guests were greeted with glasses of sparkling wine. Everywhere there was an air of delicious expectancy. We were poised at the very edge of the Naples social season.
But, first, the dinner.
The James Beard Foundation is the gold standard for culinary excellence in the United States, and to be associated with it is a mark of achievement. Chef Fabrizio Aielli, chef-owner of Sea Salt, who was born and raised in Italy, was invited to host a dinner at the James Beard House in New York City in 2015. The house—former residence of chef, food writer and television personality James Beard—is considered the Carnegie Hall of America’s cooking talent. Affiliated chefs are also invited to host James Beard Foundation dinners at their own restaurants, the proceeds of which go to supporting scholarships. These dinners are considered great honors, not only for the restaurants who host them but also for the community in which they take place. Hosting a Foundation dinner, along with cooking at the James Beard House, is often considered a step in the path leading to a coveted James Beard award. Though Aielli has not yet won that prize, the Foundation dinner at Sea Salt may bring him closer to earning the title. Regardless, the affiliation certainly boosts the prestige of our local dining scene.
On the night of the Foundation dinner at Sea Salt, guests sipped their sparkling wine and stole surreptitious glances into the kitchen. The festive chatter in the dining room mounted as the final details went into plating the first course. Ingrid Aielli, the chef’s wife, said in her beautiful European accent, “Isn’t this exciting?” A photographer pulled all of the chefs together, lining them up like gladiators before the ring, and a glass was tapped at the front of the dining room to encourage people to take their seats. This evening on Nov. 7 had been billed as a “culinary extravaganza,” and the theme would be truffles—for not only was it the beginning of the Naples social season, but it also happened to be the beginning of truffle season. The menu’s wines focused on California vineyards affected by the recent wildfires.
Soon after everyone was seated, the first course arrived—hamachi tartare served with avocado, sea urchin brûlée, white truffle slivers, crispy enoki and a 3-minute egg sauce. Designed by chef Kenny Tufo, executive chef at Sea Salt St. Pete, the dish was accompanied by a rich, golden Fisher Vineyards Chardonnay. The flavors were inventive and complex, with salty, sweet and earthen notes. A few bites in, a spontaneous round of applause went up from the guests.
For the second course, chef Jason Goddard, corporate chef for Sea Salt Naples, Sea Salt St. Pete and Barbatella, prepared a fillet of turbo with butternut squash gnocchetti, bone marrow mushrooms, white truffle shavings and asparagus tips with a red wine béarnaise. The wine accompanying the dish, a fruit-forward Merlot with excellent depth and character, came from Gundlach Bundschu Winery, an estate with vines nearly completely destroyed by the fires.
The dish itself presented a range of textures between the firm fish, the fork-tender gnocchetti and the crisp asparagus spears. From comments running the length of the tables, it was evident that the red wine béarnaise was a delightful surprise. Again there was applause, and shouts of, “Yay, Jason!”
When the plates were cleared, Keith Butler, director of development at the James Beard Foundation in New York City who was in town for the dinner, thanked the guests and the phenomenal team of chefs. He spoke about James Beard as the father of what we know as American cooking and emphasized the important voices chefs have in their local communities today. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, chef Aielli prepared his course. At the prep table, his team of chefs executed each step as delicately and precisely as surgery, spooning white truffle risotto into individual hen’s egg shells then pouring saffron egg foam over the risotto before plating the egg atop a shot glass balanced on a white plate. The plates were passed down the line and handed off to a row of waiting servers.
One diner leaned over to another. “Intense, isn’t it?”
The risotto-filled eggshells arrived along with a Tempranillo and Bordeaux blend from Stagecoach Vineyard. The flavors of the dish were earthy and lightly salty, each grain of risotto perfectly defined, the egg foam completing the taste with a savory finish.
Sea Salt’s manager, Tanya Buchanan, asked from the front of the room, “How are you enjoying this course?”
“We’re about to levitate out of our chairs,” someone called out.
Around the dining room, people commented on the simplicity and beauty of the presentation.
There was a final savory course that was paired with the 2014 signature Darioush Cabernet Sauvignon and prepared by executive chef of Sea Salt Naples, Josh Zeman, a smoked ash-painted beef châteaubriand surrounded by bright multicolored sauces—sour cherry, truffled potato emulsion, balsamic glaze and intense chlorophyll.
Butler, from the James Beard Foundation, said delightedly, “We’re eating a Pollock.”
After the beef course, pastry chef Norman Love of Norman Love Confections, a frequent collaborator and a guest star that evening, sent out the final note of the evening, plates of caramel hazelnut rocher accompanied by scoops of vanilla truffle gelato.
“Norman Love desserts are a state of art,” one guest said while another simply repeated, “Wow, wow, wow,” with each bite.
The dining room developed the unbuttoned feel that comes at the end of a fine meal as the plates were cleared and people swirled their last sips of wine. Aielli and his chefs were called out into the dining room and met with cheers and applause. They smiled humbly, waved and shook hands with guests before returning to the kitchen where they laughed and slapped each other on the back, the night’s work done.
And, like that, the Naples social season had begun.