As I walk up to 167 West 12th Street in Manhattan’s West Village, I think of those who’ve taken these steps—James Beard, revered chef, educator, and namesake of the culinary world’s most prestigious awards; Julia Child, a friend of Beard’s who helped save this four-story townhouse from the real estate market after Beard’s death in 1985; Jacques Pépin, a world-renowned French chef who attended the opening of the repurposed house.
I think of today’s top chefs invited to cook here, and when they are, as Dallas chef Abraham Salum says, “It’s an honor.” That chill that just navigated my spine? I hear it’s a side effect of the Beard House mystique.
It’s just after 7 pm on November 6, 2013, and my mother and I are meandering toward that nondescript address. I doubt her mind is replaying history, because I imagine it’s replaying our ride over in that death box taxi. I watch a round, bald fellow slip into an ordinary brick building. A woman with wild blond hair, sporting all black save for red cowboy boots, follows. That’s got to be it. Sure enough, I spy the small James Beard House plaque.
We’ve made it.
Salum, the owner of Dallas’ Komali and eponymous Salum, is cooking this evening. It’s his second time at the Beard House, and, tonight, he’s representing Komali. The dinner, though just post November 1, is Day of the Dead-themed. He’s gone all out—an altar, sugar skulls, skeletons, and a multicourse Mexican dinner with Mexican wine pairings. Salum has even brought along Leann Berry—the best bartender in Dallas, as named by this magazine—who’s mixing up tamarind and prickly-pear margaritas. We sip our drinks in the “garden,” a patio with sad-looking greenery and an errant blue tarp, and try the appetizers. My mother can’t believe she’s eating beef tongue.
Soon, Salum escapes the kitchen, which guests walk through on their way in, and positions himself on the stairs leading up to the dining area. He welcomes the sold-out crowd of 80 or so and describes the Day of the Dead rituals, including the altar. The wedding photo? His grandparents. The bottle of tequila? It’s not actually tequila, but if it were, his grandfather would have loved it. The other photo, the one of the golden retriever? That’s Tasha, or Miss T, and she passed away this afternoon in Dallas.
Wait, what? Yes, today, Salum said goodbye, via phone, to his 14-year-old dog.
The room awwws, collectively, loudly. Faces immediately turn down. But how fitting, Salum continues, that this dinner can be dedicated to her. We’re ushered upstairs to our seats. Somehow, to the right of my mother is that portly gentleman from outside. He’s a dining critic stationed in New York. To my left? The woman in the red cowboy boots, who’s originally from Austin but moved to New York City after college and “never looked back.”
Dinner is served—cream soup, purslane salad with biznaga blossoms, black cod, beef short ribs, various desserts. The soup—chicharrón cream, chapulin pico de gallo, and pasilla oil—sparks discussion at our table.
“What is the citrus in this?” asks a Beard House representative to no one in particular.
“I think it’s something straightforward like lemon,” says the critic.
“Divine!” screeches the woman to my left.
I thank whoever watches over us all that I’m still on wine glass one. It wouldn’t be appropriate to laugh.
The wine and dishes keep coming, each radically different than the last, and eventually the Beard House rep rises to speak. She highlights Salum’s background and says, with a healthy dose of what seems like sarcasm, that “he’s a frequent guest on Good Morning Texas!”
“She’s making fun of Texas!” yelps the dining critic, with no regard for volume control.
I like this guy’s style.
Shortly thereafter, Salum appears with his stable of chefs to applause, hoots, and hollers. He answers questions, in his calm, kind, genuine way. And he describes his menu, starting with that creamy, citrusy soup (it was lime), which included fried pork skin, avocado pico, and “those red things?” Salum says. “Crickets.”
My mother’s jaw must drop, because Salum motions toward her and says, “Look at her face!”
“It was delicious!” my mom replies, as the crowd cheers, everything reaching a new level of high-pitched exclamation points.
“Yay!” chimes the critic. “Drunk people like crickets!”
We have reached a frenzied state.
It dies down soon enough, as the final plates are cleared and wine bottles stashed. I take a last look at the floor-to-ceiling bookcases and the mirrored bedroom ceiling, and I congratulate Salum on the way out.
“It’s a very special stage,” he says. “It really is.”