NEW YORK -- Sacramento chef Patrick Mulvaney made a triumphant return to his hometown Thursday night when he and his staff cooked a five-course meal showcasing the region’s bounty at the James Beard House in New York’s Greenwich Village.
Mulvaney, a native of Queens who runs Mulvaney’s B&L on 19th Street in midtown, had been invited to cook at the legendary venue, associated with the James Beard Foundation and its prestigious awards, known as the “Oscars of the food world.” One of 200-plus chefs selected to cook at Beard House each year, Mulvaney is the third Sacramentan to receive the assignment, which offers national exposure and recognition of culinary accomplishment. (The others were Maurizio Contartese of Bravo Ristorante and David Soohoo of Chinois East West.)
The staff of 10 that accompanied Mulvaney – some of whom had paid a portion of their own way to be part of the event, titled “Savoring Sacramento” – worked with Beard employees to serve the meal, which included caviar from Elverta, abalone from Monterey and other seasonal ingredients harvested from area farms including Full Belly and Passmore Ranch.
The sold-out event drew about 80 diners who paid as much as $170 to attend. Mulvaney and his wife and partner, Bobbin, led a crew that brought nine boxes packed with California’s freshest ingredients to the four-story townhouse named for the chef who made Americans conscious, and then proud, of the diversity of American cuisine.
“Everything except the bottled water and the bread was shipped from Sacramento,” Mulvaney said. “The bread wouldn’t be fresh enough if I’d baked it and shipped it.”
At “Savoring Sacramento,” Mulvaney, 52, his head shaved bald like most of the male members of his staff for last week’s St. Baldrick’s fundraising event, coached his staff and joked with friends and fans who had flown in for the event from all parts of the country, as well as family members who arrived from Queens and Brooklyn.
Standing under a dining-room portrait of Beard, Mulvaney and his general manager, Andrew Kingsbury, along with Mulvaney’s bartender Dan Mitchell and wine buyer Chris Beltz, assumed their roles of sophisticated ruffians. Mitchell, whom Mulvaney described as a “class clown,” alternated between nuanced descriptions of regional wine and offers of a peek at his recently shorn hair, which he carried in a plastic bag.
Manny Muce, a native of Italy who now lives in Hoboken, N.J., said he came Thursday night for Mulvaney’s food, an “addiction” he acquired during the four years he lived in Sacramento.
“It’s like going to a relative’s house for dinner, but the relative just happens to be preparing the finest food,” Muce said. “That’s what I associate with Sacramento, and with Patrick – sophisticated fine dining, but with a homey feel.”
While Mulvaney talked to guests about Sacramento’s agricultural abundance and the city’s bid to become the “farm-to-fork capital of America” – attendees received gift bags filled with local products stamped with an “F2f” logo – Izabela Wojcik, who as director of house programming chose Mulvaney to cook at the Beard House, noted that the concept may not be new to New York.
“There’s almost a backlash here to that notion of farm-to-table,” she said. “Because ... where else would it come from? In Brooklyn, there’s a rooftop garden on top of my grocery store. Local is very common now.”
Nevertheless, Wojcik admitted that the Monterey abalone Mulvaney brought struck her as “exotic,” and that New Yorkers, for all their sophistication, still “experience a little produce envy” when confronted with California’s bounty.
Thursday’s meal began with hors d’oeuvres that included fois gras on toast and potato chips cradling Elverta-based Sterling caviar. Pre-dinner drinks included beers from Sacramento microbreweries Ruhstaller, Rubicon, Track 7 and Knee Deep.
Five courses followed, including abalone served with “first favas” that were grown by students at Sacramento High School (part of the Edible Sac High program), rack of lamb from Dixon with crunchy spears of Delta asparagus, and sturgeon from Sloughhouse’s Passmore Ranch with shredded black trumpet mushrooms. Classic Sacramento ingredients such as rice shared plates with seared pork belly. The meal concluded with a jubilee dessert featuring local strawberries.
Among the Manhattan foodies in attendance were NBA employees who got to know Mulvaney’s food while they were working on Kings business in Sacramento. Other diners were family members in the New York area, as well as fellow Sacramentans who’d come along to support the chef. Mulvaney’s brother Jim came with his wife, Barbara, and son Jack came from Far Rockaway in Queens. His friend Christine Ault traveled from Sacramento to join the celebration.
Among Mulvaney’s old friends was Dan Tubridy, his first boss at a family restaurant/bar in Queens who regaled tablemates with tales of Mulvaney’s early career (he said he declared Mulvaney “the chef least likely to succeed” in 1983).
Jim Mulvaney noted that Sean Kinsella, world-famous chef at the Waterville Lake Hotel in Ireland where Patrick Mulvaney had his first fine-dining apprenticeship, fired Mulvaney repeatedly over the course of a summer, and that at one point, according to Tubridy, “Sean was chasing Patrick around the restaurant with a kitchen knife.”
But the real story of Thursday night was Mulvaney’s rustically elegant food. The chef said cooking at the James Beard House was an honor, not only for him, but for the whole region, what he called “the vast community of growers and brewers and farmers who create the ingredients we use every day.
“This is recognition of the work,” he said. “And a lot of people do the work.”