Gathering to Taste the Pacific Rim

Chef Chris Mills stands in front of the assembled crowd, looking only slightly nervous. We’re here to taste the final run-through of his Gatherings From the Pacific Rim menu, the multi-course dinner he will be presenting at the James Beard House in New York on November 20th.

The James Beard House is the home base of the James Beard Foundation, which was founded to further the work of the late chef and food writer, and to promote culinary heritage and knowledge. The Foundation works to promote culinary education, emerging chefs and honour the best in the food industry. An invitation to cook at the James Beard House is the equivalent of a culinary Oscar, and dinners are capped at 74 guests to ensure the best service.

Mills is no stranger to the James Beard House; he presented a dinner there back in 2006. His other turns in the spotlight include an appearance on the original Japanese version of Iron Chef, a fifth place spot in the 2006 Bocuse d’Or, and an array of awards including the Canadian Federation of Chefs and Cooks, the International Wine & Food Society’s Apprentice of the Year and the Pierre Dubrulle Rising Star award.

Currently Mills is the executive chef at the Joey Restaurant Group where he has created an innovative program that mirrors a traditional rigorous culinary apprenticeship. For the Pacific Rim dinner at the James Beard House, Mills assembled a team of chefs from the restaurant’s various locations, and service is being performed by Joey regional managers and sommeliers.

The menu is designed to feature ingredients indigenous to the Pacific Rim, and many items were caught or grown by Mills himself.

We start the evening with an array of whimsical hors d’oeuvres including a chicken corndog, tiny chicken tacos and Pacific tuna on chopsticks, as well as a Japanese hummus. These are paired with a Joie Rose from British Columbia.

Dinner proper begins with a citrus cured Haida Gwaii salmon, dungeness crab flan with cornbread, and a bright frisee salad topped with arctic char, salmon roe and lemon creme friache. The salad is weirdly spicy and Chef later admits that he made it too much so (there’s jalapeno in the salmon roe giving the whole thing a kick), and promises that he will tone this down for the official dinner. The salmon, which Mills caught off the coast of Haida Gwaii this summer, is beautifully sweet and bright, while the crab flan is creamy and smooth.

Mills is a fan of dim sum and the next dish of Alaskan black cod, BBQ pork belly and squash dumpling garnished with matsutake mushrooms is his homage to dim sum in both China and Vancouver. Most of us had started digging in before we realized there was a gorgeous matusake mushroom broth to be added by the servers, but it meant that we caught the flavour of the ginger red onion marmalade on the cod. This was served with the always-wonderful “Small Lots” Viogner from Sandhill in British Columbia. Mills harvested the mushrooms himself from a secret stash somewhere near Whistler.

A quick palate cleanser arrives between courses, a take on a Waldorf salad made with apples, celery, candied walnuts and frisee lettuce along with an apple jelly and a pinot noir reduction.

On to the duck. Mills served duck at the James Beard House in 2006, but this time it has an Asian twist. Served two ways – “licorice-lacquered” (glazed with star anise) breast and a Korean-style steamed bun crusted with hazelnuts. Complemented by Lapin cherries that the chef picked and canned this past summer. Joey Sommelier Dustin Dockendorff has paired a rare pinot noir, Russian River Valley from Sonoma Curter in California. There is a lovely balance here with the richness of the duck and the spicy anise glaze that picks up the peppery notes in the wine.

The main – pictured at the top of this post – is a gorgeous 45 day aged beef rib eye with a “lasagna” made from Yukon gold potatoes, braised oxtail and black trumpet mushrooms, garnished with heirloom carrots and a perfect line of spinach puree that we all think is a green bean until we start eating. This dish is complemented by an Efeste “Ceidleigh” Syrah from Washington. This is also a rich dish, but it’s balanced by the wine and the freshness of the little round carrots.

Dessert moves us to the Asian side of the Pacific Rim with a Vietnamese banana cake topped with toasted coconut ice cream and a coconut tuile and paired with a fruit salad of bananas and kiwi as well as a house-made marshmallow, passionfruit puree and coconut creme fraiche. This is a lovely light dessert with a complex variety of flavours. Paired with Inniskillin “Okanagan” Reisling Ice Wine from British Columbia. But wait, there’s more… blackberry lavender Financiers, made with lavender grown in Mills’ garden and foraged wild blackberries.

Mills does an excellent job of pulling together the flavours of the Pacific Rim, blending Asian spices and techniques with ingredients indigenous to this side of the big, big pond. We expect those lucky enough to have tickets to the dinner at James Beard House will be thoroughly pleased with this meal.

And while guests at Joey won’t find most of these unique dishes on the menu there (Chef can catch enough salmon for a special dinner but not enough to supply the whole chain…), the Vietnamese banana cake will be available at Joey restaurants across the country during the month of November.

It’s a huge honour to be invited to cook at the James Beard House, and to be invited back a second time, even more so. We’re certain that Chef Mills’ menu will wow the guests on November 20th, and that they will take as much pleasure in the fabulous food and wine as we did.