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Chefs Jennings & Vestal’s Julia Child 100th Birthday Dinner at the James Beard Foundation
Last fall, Matt Jennings, Chef and Co-Owner of Farmstead, Inc., and Beau Vestal, Chef and Co-Owner of New Rivers, teamed up to prepare a Happy 100th Birthday to Julia Child dinner at the James Beard Foundation House in New York. I was invited to document their time in the storied kitchen. In addition to the time-lapse video posted after the September 18, 2012 dinner, below is an interview with Jennings and Vestal about their thoughts on planning the dinner, as well as 22 photographs. The full gallery of photos from the evening can be viewed in this Eat Drink RI Facebook album.
Matt Jennings: We knew that we wanted to do a dinner together here. We looked at the calendar and realized what was coming up, and kind of independently talked about what an inspiration she [Julia Child] had for us both. In an email the [Beard Foundation] House asked why we really wanted to do it. So I wrote this long e-mail about how Beau and I both remember growing up with her on the television and told the whole story of how she affected us. The bottom line really is how she taught people to not be afraid, to have fun and enjoy cooking.
Beau Vestal: It should be fun.
MJ: That’s where Beau and I both come from anyway. You spend 17 hours a day at work you should love what you’re doing. She was definitely the inspiration behind that.
BV: Julia Child was always someone who was like, if you screw it up, that’s O.K. It’s just food, it’s not brain surgery. That’s a refreshing sort of take. Nowadays we’re so pressure-packed in a restaurant sometimes, where it’s like life or death. Then seeing what she did, it helps us come back down to earth a little bit and say, it’s just food, it’s O.K. to be intense about it, but at the end of the day you’re feeding people, you’re not saving lives.
MJ: Yesterday we talked about remembering her and technique and how a lot of what’s on the menu tonight are really our interpretations. We both individually thumbed through Mastering the Art of French Cooking and pulled out some of our favorite things and used those as a catalyst to write the menu.
BV: We found things that she was known for and then said, “how can we make it taste like our food with her framework?” Like with the Boeuf à la Bourguignonne dish, it’s all the flavor you’d find in a Boeuf à la Bourguignonne, but it’s not really what she would do, it’s what I would do. So she kind of provided an outline for tonight.
MJ: She proved that French technique never goes out of style. It’s always there. So much of what we do every day is French. There’s so much going on now in the world with different cultures influencing cuisine but at the end of the day so much of what we do is French. You’re taught how to do something the right way, it’s usually the French way.
BV: It’s fun for us. When I was just starting out at the restaurant, Bruce [Tillinghast, former owner of New Rivers] would tell me, “make a terrine, make a sweetbread dish,” and our first point of reference was Julia. We’d always see, what does Julia do first, and then we’d use her framework and spin it off our own way. Whenever we were making a forcemeat or pâté or terrine, it would always be, “what would Julia do?” We still have those books, they’re splattered and dog-eared. She wrote books that were meant to be on the counter and being used all the time. Mine are all drawn up with notes—pencil, pen, Sharpie—there’s veal stock on it. I think that’s what she would have wanted. I think she would have wanted her sort of books, her recipes to be used, in a functional way. Some of these books nowadays are so shiny and pretty. They’re fun. I love those new books, but she was sort of like the utilitarian. “Use my book,” and we still do.
MJ: She and Paul had such an amazing relationship. He was so supportive of what she did. The symbiosis that was there between the two of them was just amazing and so inspirational in itself. We talked a bit about that too. Both Beau and I come from restaurant families where we’re running them with our wives. So there’s an element of that, “the love affair of food,” as well. Having somebody who you can enjoy it with.
BV: Hopefully we’ll do her justice tonight.
Below is the evening’s menu. While I can’t speak for the late Mrs. Child, I don’t feel Vestal should have had any worries about he and Jennings doing justice that evening. It was a very impressive, fun and loving tribute.
Chou Farci de Foie Gras – Miniature Shredded Duck and Foie Gras Stuffed Cabbages
Caillettes du Porc – Pork Shoulder–Chicken Liver Sausages with Late Summer Tomato Jam
Potage Parmentier – Potato, Leek, and Sweet Corn Bisque with Pistou
Pissaladière – House-Cured Meats with Oil-Cured Olives and Spicy Arugula
Galettes au Constant Bliss – Vermont Cheese Wafers with Quail Eggs and Caviar
Served with Gentiane Spritzes – Gentiane with Soda, Lemon, and Ice
Jean-Francois Merieau “Bulles” NV
Aubergines et Agneau en Pistouille – Smoked Eggplant Terrine And Lamb Confit à La Grecque with Nightshades and Basil, paired with: 2008 Hugel et Fils Pinot Gris Hommage a Jean Hugel
Langue de Boeuf à l’Aigre-Doux – Slow-Cooked Rhode Island Beef Tongue with Sweet-And-Sour Flavors, Bone Marrow, and Rye Pierogi, paired with: 2008 Domaine de la Janasse Côtes du Rhône
Coquilles St. Jacques à la Provençal – Roasted New Bedford Sea Scallop with Ratatouille Vinaigrette, Saffron Potato Crisp, and Verjus, paired with: 2011 Domaine de Triennes Vin de Pays du Var Rosé
Boeuf à la Bourguignonne – Overnight Brisket with Potato Fondue, Foraged Hen of the Woods Mushrooms, and Smoked Trotter Croustillant, paired with: 2005 Louis Latour Le Pinot Noir Chanfleure De Bourgogne Rouge
Little Rhody Peach Tarte Tatin with Whipped Honey, Whipped Cream, and Berries