The Thursday night between Christmas and New Year’s, Ceia Kitchen + Bar, the pearl of a restaurant in Newburyport, prepared dinner at the The James Beard Foundation in Greenwich Village, N.Y. The provincial Cinderella, created and owned by Nancy Batista-Caswell, had received the invitation to the ball.
Ceia’s executive chef, Patrick Soucy, and his team, Corey Marcoux and Andrew Beddoes, arrived at The Beard House a half hour early that day, too excited apparently to stay away any longer. The Beard House staff later reported they had not seen the place packed so well in weeks (The Ceia dinner sold out), nor had they seen such an enthusiastic kitchen.
I was there, and am certain Soucy, Marcoux, and Beddoes never stopped smiling; they shifted great pans of butter-poached lobster and walnut-smoked rack of lamb buoyed by joy and the honor of shucking Chatham oysters in the kitchen of the first champion of American regional cuisine and local ingredients. While Julia Child (a great friend of James Beard) was teaching Cambridge wives the how-to’s of coq au vin in the 1970s, Beard was writing cookbooks on the beauty and value of Maine shrimp, three-bean salad, and Election Cake.
For many people James Beard symbolized a shelf of honest cookbooks packed with trustworthy American recipes and intelligent culinary history. For me, being in the James Beard House was tender; my mother had most of his cookbooks, and they all came out for special dinners and holidays. There were so many passages and stories about Beard, his friends, and his entertaining in those books that I heard his clippy, definitive voice as soon as I stepped off the Greenwich Village sidewalk into the narrow, gently lit foyer. I could hear Beard’s words on Prune Whip: “A classic over a long period, related to a souffle. It’s good hot or cold, and is nostalgic, to a point.” Or Baked Alaska: “This has become a signature for elaborate dining in this country and is a dessert that causes ohs and ahs wherever it is presented. I think it is greatly overrated, but it is a part of American life.”
It seemed as if much of the Henry James-style townhouse — the fireplaces, bookcases, and Americana wallpaper stamped with an ear of corn — was intentionally preserved as Beard’s home, but, like the grandmother’s house that never gets new furniture or fresh paint, much of it now just feels worn, which in fact makes Beard feel that much closer, as if the great man, a little older, were just upstairs adjusting the bow tie on his tux.
And yet for the much younger generation of cooks, for Soucy, Marcoux and Beddoes, the Beard Foundation is about the awards which began in 1991, and which crowned the cooking industry with credibility. As Soucy says, The Beard Award, the Oscars of professional cuisine, made cooking “OK;” The Beard House, Soucy said, his voice still charged with awe when I spoke to him a week later, “is where all the big boys come to play.”
Along with the crested awards — distributed to a variety of professionals, from chefs to cookbook authors to restaurant designers — The Beard House invites restaurants from around the country to prepare dinners in the Beard home, “a performance space for chefs,” Peter Kumpf, who was one of the original conceptualizers of the Beard Foundation, described it. The dinners are open to the public, and reservations can be made through Open Table; you can follow the Beard website, and see which restaurants from around the country will be showing up to cook. This means you can dine at that great little Milwaukee restaurant featured in Food and Wine magazine last month without having to fly to Milwaukee.
The hosted restaurant provides food, beverages, and their traveling expenses; the Beard House provides the kitchen, waitstaff, and linens. Ceia’s night, the waitstaff rippled through the dining rooms, stacked on two floors to accommodate the town house architecture, answering questions about Beard’s mirrored bathroom (yup.), and the odd placement of his shower, one wall of which was once all glass, opening up to his Greenwich Village neighbors. At one point Nancy Batista-Caswell asked one of the Beard House waitstaff, “so, is this your gig?” To which the waiter explained just how good the gig is: “At the end of the day we interact with top American chefs; they’re making the best food, and there are no complaints.”
Petite, brunette Batista-Caswell, just 30 years old, had already quietly earned solid footing in the culinary world when she opened Ceia two years ago: Johnson & Wales, work with Chris Schlesinger at The Back Eddy in Westport, and then developing and opening Bin Osteria for The Bin Hospitality Group.
Ceia’s wine list, Batista-Caswell’s personal creation, has gained the tiny restaurant a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, which hangs beside a few more “best of’s,” including Boston Magazine’s 50 Best Restaurants of 2012.
Much of Ceia’s “Coastal European” inspiration borrows heavily from Batista Caswell’s Fairhaven Portuguese roots; Ceia means “supper” in Portuguese. Her mother often shows up to advise the kitchen. The maitre D’ at the Beard House, also Portuguese, was delighted by Soucy’s elegant translation of some traditional dishes: The first course, Sopa de Alentajo — a black garlic soup served with Iberico ham-wrapped crouton and topped with a poached duck egg, set the tone of the menu, re-interpreting the Old World, retaining the best of it.
Soucy prides himself on being a farm-to-dinner chef, a challenge when preparing a serious dinner in December, but the five-course meal beautifully reflected both place and season: Iberico Porchetta with grilled clams, heirloom apples and a leek and cabbage vinaigrette. Oxtail raviolo with root vegetables. Walnut smoked rack of lamb with preserved lemon-stuffed olives. A Musque de Provence Frittelle, that beautiful pink squash revered by Italians, made into a light pancake, and served with pumpkin seed ice cream, for dessert.
At my table butter-poached Maine lobster tail served with a corn sformato elicited the loudest mumbled mouthfuls of approval. Soucy, knowing this dinner may be on the calendar, had picked the super sweet corn from Tendercrop Farm in Newbury at the peak of last summer’s season, and flash froze it. He offered a brief table-side tutorial on how carefully farmers space corn to allow the sun to hit the roots of the plant, resulting in the “super” to super sweet corn. Soucy kindly provided the luscious sformato recipe.
A few updates: Ceia has moved across the street to the former site of the Rockfish Grill, 38 State St. in Newburyport. In February, Batista-Caswell will debut Brine, “a contemporary oyster, crudo, and chop bar with a market vibe” in the former Ceia location, 25 State St.
Preserved New England Corn Sformato
Makes ten 4-ounce servings
1 quart bechamel sauce
11/2 cups ricotta (Soucy makes his own.)
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup fresh frozen corn puree
1 cup fresh shaved corn kernels
freshly grated nutmeg to taste
1/4 teaspoon ground clove
pinch fleur de sel or gray salt
freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons grated Parmigiana Reggiano
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Slightly beat eggs and ricotta cheese.
Add the remaining ingredients. Pour mixture into ten 4-ounce buttered and breadcrumb-dusted ramekins. Place ramekins in a roasting pan, and pour in hot water in pan so that it reaches half-way up the sides of the ramekins to create a hot water bath.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until set. Turn over onto plate and serve.
Rockport resident Heather Atwood writes the Food for Thought weekly. Questions and comments may be directed to email@example.com. Follow her blog at HeatherAtwood.com.