For many chefs, presenting a dinner at The James Beard House in New York City is a goal to which they aspire. The privilege of a James Beard House dinner may feel even more precious for Mario Pagán, chef and owner of Laurel Nuevo Caribe Kitchen: Art Bar and Lemongrass Pan Asian Latino, two restaurants in San Juan, Puerto Rico. While it's tough enough for any renowned chef to get on The James Beard House calendar, chefs who aren't as well-known on the U.S. mainland may have an even greater challenge, so Pagán's announcement last week that he'll be cooking there May 7 was something of a culinary coup.
Though Pagán has cooked several times at the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards, often referred to as the Oscars of the culinary world, the May dinner, titled “Sip and Savor Puerto Rico,” will be his first time cooking at The James Beard House. “Cooking at The James Beard House has to be one of the greatest accomplishments of my career,” Pagán said. “If you are a chef and you get invited to cook there, you know you are doing something right.”
Invitations to cook at The James Beard House are extended by Izabela Wojcik, the Director of House Programming at The James Beard Foundation. Wojcik's decisions are guided by her own tastes and the palates of colleagues she trusts, as well as the biography and merit of a chef, his or her current restaurant affiliation, press and reviews, and the chef's proposed menu or theme the chef. Wojcik met Pagán at an event and loved his food; her own judgment was bolstered by friends who recommended the chef highly. He will be the ninth Puerto Rican chef to cook at The James Beard House; Pagán was preceded by Alfredo Ayala, Wilo Benet, Roberto Trevino, and Rocío Varela, among others.
Pagán's “Sip and Savor Puerto Rico” dinner features indigenous Puerto Rican ingredients, all of which he will be bringing with him from the island, even though, he says, most of the ingredients can also be found in New York. Bringing his own ingredients “saves us time and guarantees we have everything we need,” he said. Among the dishes he'll be serving are spiny lobster-malanga fritters with soursop dressing, smoked chayote soup with parmesan-coriander foam, plantain-dusted rabbit terrine with escargots and sage-infused gravy, and adobo lamb shoulder confit with apio-grit cake and Rioja wine reduction. Pagán will be assisted by his chef de cuisine, two sous chefs, and three New York-New Jersey area chefs who are lending him a hand for the evening.
Pagán will be joined by his pastry chef, too. Chef Orlando Santiago will be presenting a trio of desserts that have also been crafted around Puerto Rican ingredients, including a baby banana, raisin, and rum créme bruleé; a goat cheese cheesecake dome with nougatine and a warm guava glaze; and a warm coconut-bienmesabe financier with cocoa ice cream.
In addition to wine pairings, which are traditional accompaniments at The James Beard House dinners, chef Pagán has paired up with the Serrallés Family, the makers of DonQ rums. The passed appetizers that precede the dinner will be accompanied by three craft cocktails designed by professional mixologists from Serrallés, and sound just as intriguing as the evening's food menu. There's St. Elmos Fire, which blends DonQ Cristal with toasted coconut drinking vinegar, pineapple, amaro, allspice, and lime; Hugs & Kisses, which pairs three unexpected ingredients–verjus, animal cracker tincture, and yuzu–with DonQ Gold; and Vintage Photo, which evokes the island with its mix of DonQ Gran Añejo with banana cordial and bitters.
Pagán, who has been posting tantalizing preview photos on Facebook, says that his main goal for the evening “is to provide guests with a taste from Puerto Rico and have them sip a little bit of rum. My dream is already happening,” he adds, “being able to cook there!”
Tickets for the dinner are $130 for members and $170 for the general public, and can be reserved online.