He’ll Take Manhattan

Pino Posteraro is exhausted. He’s just closed his Yaletown restaurant, Cioppino’s, after a gruelling six-day week. Boarding a Cathay Pacific flight to JFK airport in New York just before midnight, he sinks into his business-class seat and pulls the brim of a Lacoste ball cap over his eyes. He’s desperately in need of sleep that doesn’t come. While the other 17 members of his party nod off, he goes over his mental checklist.

Twelve cases containing six different vintages of specifically sourced Antinori wines must clear Customs and arrive in New York, on time and undamaged. The same goes for thousands of dollars’ worth of B.C. sablefish, spot prawns, albacore tuna, and Qualicum Bay scallops. God (and FedEx) willing, 80 of his signature limoncello cheesecakes should be waiting for him in the walk-in cooler of Daniel Boulud’s restaurant on the Upper East Side. The fresh herbs and produce should arrive from Union Square Market just after his plane touches down. Specialty ingredients (oils, vinegars, truffles, piquillo peppers, three types of salt, and four types of olives) sourced from Roland (an American food importer) should also be waiting.

In the airplane’s cargo hold are items too delicate to be trusted to overnight shipping. Meticulously wrapped in gel packs are $1,400 worth of Peace Country lamb racks, 320 handmade ravioli stuffed with beef cheeks, 13 pounds of reduced lamb stock in double-sealed containers, two one-kilogram bags of imported chickpea flour, and Posteraro’s collection of knives. If this trip is to be a success, the timing must be perfect and the organization meticulous. Nobody said cooking dinner at the James Beard House would be easy.

James Beard House is more than a restored four-storey brownstone in Greenwich Village. For North American chefs, it’s Mecca, and cooking dinner there is a once-in-a-lifetime honour. The late James Beard was one of the inventors of modern American cuisine, and since 1986 his former home has hosted the finest chefs, sommeliers, food journalists, and restaurateurs in the world. It’s one of the biggest stages in the industry, under the brightest spotlight. The scrutiny, the pressure to perform, is intense. The only way in is to be invited. 

Posteraro had already cancelled one invitation. In 2007 his cookbook (Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill) caught the attention of Mitchell Davis, the New York City food journalist and vice-president of the James Beard Foundation. Posteraro secured sponsorship from Connecticut’s Foxwood Casinos and accepted the invitation. The Foxwood people agreed to fly him east to appear on one of their celebrity cooking shows as part of a weeklong promotional tour for the cookbook that would conclude at the James Beard House. When Foxwood reneged, Posteraro had to cancel. “Cancelling is unheard of,” he recalls with a rueful smile. “From what I’d heard, if you cancel they’ll never have you back.”

A year later, Davis and Posteraro crossed paths again. In September 2008, when Daniel Boulud was taking over the reins at Lumière, he invited some Vancouver chefs to his Manhattan restaurant Daniel to introduce the cooking of the Pacific Northwest to New York City. Posteraro was one of the chefs Boulud showcased, and Davis was in attendance. Wowed by Posteraro’s lobster medallions, Davis again invited him to prepare an Italian-inspired menu showcasing Vancouver ingredients. D-Day was Thursday, July 2.

Orchestrating a multi-course dinner featuring local ingredients for 76 people in a foreign city 3,900 kilometres away takes careful planning. Canada and the States have different regulations for shipping fish, meats, fruits, and vegetables. Ingredients had to be packed and shipped separately (what goes for sablefish does not necessarily go for prawns), each container requiring detailed certificates of origin and FDA approval. Fear of Canadian beef (remember the mad-cow scares?) almost put the kibosh on Posteraro’s braised beef cheek ravioli, forcing him to travel with them personally. Should even a single ingredient be denied at Customs, or arrive damaged or late, it would make things tricky indeed. How would he find B.C. spot prawns in New York City within 48 hours? If he was going to make this trip work, he’d need help.

Long-time supplier Dennis Mattarollo proved invaluable. Their relationship goes back 13 years, to when Posteraro arrived in Vancouver as the chef at Il Giardino. Mattarollo’s 23 years with Albion Fisheries has made him an expert at shipping around the world. After obtaining the necessary certification for the spot prawns (still wiggling), albacore tuna, sablefish, and scallops, Mattarollo packed, weighed, and labelled each package himself. He trucked the cargo to Seattle (dealing with Customs in person), then FedExed it to New York. He even footed the bill. “I used a lot of foam and packing peanuts,” he laughs. “If anything happened during shipping, it sure as hell wasn’t going to be my fault.”

The Antinori family donated wines. Posteraro shares a rich history with the famed wine producers, and named one of the private rooms of his restaurant after them. A call to Anthony von Mandl, owner of Mission Hill and Mark Anthony Wine Merchants (which carries Antinori wines in Canada) helped locate specific vintages on this side of the Atlantic. Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington (another Mark Anthony connection) rounded up the 12 cases of specially selected wines. Among them was the rare Muffato della Sala, a rich, botrytis-affected dessert wine from Umbria.

Events are held at the James Beard House almost every night; there would be no opportunity for Posteraro to use the kitchen for his preparations. Enter Boulud, who offered his kitchen at Daniel on East 65th Street. Boulud offered access to his walk-ins, his subterranean banquet kitchen, and the trucks required to move ingredients from the Upper East Side to the West Village. He also put his personal assistant and two chefs at Posteraro’s disposal. Posteraro had an 87-item shopping list of fresh herbs and produce (everything from Japanese eggplant, pea shoots, and skinless almonds to panko, wakame, and espelette) that would take hours to acquire. Boulud sent his chefs to market so the ingredients would be waiting when Posteraro arrived.

The wheels of the Boeing 777 hit the tarmac as the morning sun finds the Manhattan skyline. Posteraro’s companions shift groggily, rubbing sleep from bleary eyes: his wife, Raisa, and their four children; his entire kitchen staff, led by chef de cuisine (and nephew) Cristiano, plus restaurant manager (and brother) Celestino, sommelier Massimo Piscopo, and long-time servers Patrick Malpass and Richard Fidler. The front-of-house staff aren’t there to work; the week in New York is his gift to his staff to celebrate the restaurant’s 10th anniversary. He can be a hard man to work for, but his loyalty and generosity know no bounds. Employees have enjoyed interest-free loans, co-signatures on cars and condos, deals on luxury items from Posteraro’s friends. There’s even a rumour about an employee’s stint in rehab that Posteraro paid for.

Customs turns out to be a breeze. Posteraro hands the agent a battered blue duotang containing an itemized breakdown of his packages including the requisite forms and advanced FDA certification. He’s in and out in less than five minutes. (The same cannot be said for the Hong Kong businessmen ahead of him, whose suitcases are filled with undeclared shark’s fin, bird’s nest, and sea cucumber.) He and his kitchen staff hop into a waiting limousine and head straight to Daniel. Everything has arrived in pristine condition, save for 24 of the limoncello cheesecakes. Ironically, they survived the journey across the continent but are crushed while being unpacked.

Capacity at the James Beard House is 80, and tickets for the event ($165 U.S., $125 for members) sold out quickly. New Yorkers, the most blasé species on the planet, are excited to see what this Vancouver chef can do. It certainly hasn’t hurt to have the Mitchell Davis stamp of approval. “We’re thrilled to host Pino,” says Izabela Wojcik, director of house programming. “The James Beard House is dedicated to showcasing superlative regional cooking, making Pino a perfect fit for us. We don’t often have chefs from Vancouver, given the logistical difficulties, but our guests love it. Vancouver’s reputation for exquisite food is well known amongst our members.”

The logistical problems don’t end with transportation of ingredients. “We’d heard horror stories from other chefs about the size of the kitchen,” says Posteraro’s chef de cuisine, Cristiano. “They weren’t kidding.” There’s only enough counter space to plate 12 dishes at a time, which means the team will have to plate each course in waves. Luckily, the largest table is a 10-top. It can work; it just means more trips to the dining room. The servers will have to be fast—if a plate sits on the pass for even a second longer than necessary, Posteraro will let his runners know it.

The menu is a five-course amalgam of Pacific Northwest ingredients with Southern Italian accents. (“Tuscany and Piedmont are way too over-represented,” says Posteraro, who’s from Calabria.) In attendance are actor Stanley Tucci, who recently hosted the James Beard Awards (the Oscars of the food world), and, in a stroke of irony, 10 executives from Foxwood Casinos.

Guests start arriving at 7 p.m. They’re greeted with flutes of Montenisa Brut and a selection of canapés: tempura’d albacore tuna with gleaming pink centers dressed with seaweed-cucumber salad and truffle vinaigrette; a crispy duo of arancini with buffalo mozzarella “soup”; house-cured lingcod brandade with caviar, puréed olives, and homemade chickpea bread; and chilled spot prawn cocktails with gazpacho served in martini glasses.

Dinner begins with seared Qualicum scallops served atop barley risotto with an emulsified sauce Romesco. Lemon froth adorns each plump scallop, highlighting the citrus notes of the straw-coloured Bolgheri Vermentino they are served with. The second course is sablefish marinated in Marsala, soy, and wild fennel pollen until it achieves a deep chestnut hue. It is served with soy sabayon, sweet English peas, and baby sprouts, and is paired with the Bramito del Cervo, a minerally Chardonnay from Umbria. Next come the handmade ravioli stuffed with slow-braised beef cheek with preserved truffle sauce, complemented by the peppery plum and cinnamon notes of the Marchese Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva. 

The main course is roasted Peace Country lamb racks with saffron potatoes, caponata, and a Calabrian-style tomato conserve, along with the Il Bruciato, a silky Super Tuscan redolent of violets and cherries. Candied orange marmalade, balsamic caramel, and mascarpone lemon sorbetto garnish the limoncello cheesecake (hurriedly re-created to make up for the damaged cargo).

Stanley Tucci’s dairy allergy provides an unexpected surprise. When Posteraro discovers that Tucci is unable to eat the dessert course, he grabs a bottle of the Montenisa Brut and prepares a champagne zabaglione on the fly. His furious whisking of egg yolks, sugar, and champagne catch the attention of the entire room. What begins as a dish for one becomes a frothy, boozy second dessert for everyone. At the end of the meal, Posteraro and his team are greeted with thunderous applause. A short Q&A session follows, but for all the anticipation that led to this moment, it passes for the chef in a blur. “I was on such a high,” he later recalls, “that I don’t even remember what the questions were.”

He does remember what he and his team do after their triumphant night on one of the most prestigious culinary stages in North America. They head for the Carnegie Deli, two blocks from their hotel, where they down Cokes and mountainous corned beef sandwiches before collapsing, exhausted, into bed.