NEW YORK — Issuing last-minute instructions to the sous chefs at her elbow in the James Beard House kitchen, Shannon Bard seemed to be speaking even faster than her characteristic rapid-fire patter.
An hour and a half before her sold-out “Mexico meets Maine” dinner on Monday night, the ebullient chef, in the kitchen since 8 a.m., admitted she had been too wrapped up in preparation to fully take in her surroundings – the very same kitchen where not only the great Beard himself had cooked, but also nearly every luminary in the culinary world.
“I got chills coming down the steps,” she said about her first time entering the hallowed former home of the man dubbed “the father of American gastronomy,” whose cooking companions included Julia Child. “Everyone says, ‘Take the time to enjoy the moment’ and I’ve been so busy I haven’t had time to do that.”
Bard and her husband, Tom, own two restaurants: Zapoteca in Portland and Mixteca in Durham, N.H. They are working on a third, Toroso, focusing on Spanish cuisine and tapas, in a yet-to-be-determined Portland location, and have not ruled out still more.
Shannon Bard will be featured on a Food Network show, which she can’t name, debuting in February; she has also just finished teaching a series of classes at Stonewall Kitchen in Kittery and is talking about a cookbook. In April, she’ll spend two weeks in San Sebastian, Spain, doing a “stage,” or internship, at Arzak, widely considered to be one of the best restaurants in the world.
Not insignificantly, the Bards, who live in Kennebunk, have four children: Dylan, 15, Devin, 14, Logan, 13 and Camden 10.
Shannon Bard said her biggest challenge in pulling off the Beard House dinner was finding time to thoroughly test her recipes, even though nothing on the menu was completely new.
Some of the dishes had been tried out at special tequila dinners this past fall, others were vetted on New Year’s Eve.
“It’s almost like a snowball effect with everything that’s going on right now,” she said.
Bard’s energy and confidence apparently run in the family.
“I had two great people who influenced me: my mother and my grandmother,” she said. “I got invited to cook here on my mother’s birthday and I’m cooking on my grandmother’s birthday, so it’s a guaranteed success.”
For a chef, hosting a dinner at the James Beard House – owned by the nonprofit James Beard Foundation – is an honor, but also a pricey, labor-intensive proposition. The food, liquor and primary kitchen staff all have to be supplied but the house, located in Greenwich Village, has service staff who are familiar with the creaky, four-story building’s quirks, and offers some volunteer kitchen help.
Chefs who are interested in the gig can submit an application, which has to be approved by the foundation. Once a chef gets the nod and a date is chosen, the menu has to be signed off on as well.
Bard was approved on Nov. 13. She then had six days to submit her menu: five hors d’oeuvres and five courses, each of which incorporated at least one ingredient from Maine.
“I wanted to stay close to home as to what I cook,” she said. “I’m very much into doing Mexican-influenced dishes but with Maine ingredients.”
Many of these were donated. Sysco provided some key products, Linda Bean’s donated the lobster and Herradura supplied the tequila. Cranberries, mushrooms, beets, goat cheese, carrots, greenhouse tomatoes, microgreens all came from Maine.
The guest list, too, offered further home-state support: Chef David Turin of the David’s restaurants in Portland and Kennebunkport, with his wife, Christy Bomba; Bettina Doulton of Cellardoor Winery in Lincolnville; Dr. Lisa Belisle, a Portland radio talk show host; and Raymond Brunyanszki, owner of Camden Harbour Inn; and Kevin Thomas, publisher of the magazine, Maine.
“There were only about 20 people we knew on the list,” said Shannon. “But there are a lot of people who vacation in Maine and live in New York. The average number for dinners here is 60 and we have 81.”
Chefs who are used to hiding behind the kitchen door won’t fare well at the Beard House. Guests enter through a narrow vestibule, then wander through the wide-open kitchen – past Beard’s world-map wallpaper preserved behind Plexiglas – to the atrium, where drinks and hors d’oeuvres are served. In the warmer months, an outdoor patio provides breathing room; otherwise, quarters are tight.
“I am actually shocked that it is this big,” said Bard. “I heard about how small it is. To me, the space is really well put together.”
When the dessert course – ancho-chile spiced devil’s food cake with red-chile creme anglaise, piloncillo-hazelnut praline and a final flourish of gold leaf – was finally dispatched from the kitchen, Bard let out a war whoop.
“Oh, my God, I just cooked at the James Beard House, and I’m done!”
For now, that is.
Susan Axelrod can be contacted at 791-6310 or at: