Herding Foodies 

Mai Thai chef spotlights local lamb at Boise's first James Beard Foundation Dinner

Sipping a glass of local white wine at a linen-draped table, Meadowlark Farms Owner Janie Burns riffed freely on the subject of lamb.

"No one at the market ever asks me about the things that I know," she said, rattling off a list of industry topics like sheep breeds, feed types and gestation periods. "Mostly they ask me, 'How do you cook it? Will this thaw out in my car if I do five quick trips [before I get home]?'"

Burns may not have known the answers to those questions, but someone at Mai Thai—where she was a guest of honor that night at Boise's first Friends of James Beard Dinner — certainly did. Over the next few hours, Mai Thai Executive Chef Justin Scheihing performed culinary magic with some of Meadowlark's best lamb cuts, teasing out different facets of the protein for savory Thai dishes like larb, tom sum and massaman curry.

The meal had its roots in Idaho agriculture but its heart in New York City, where the James Beard Foundation is headquartered. The foundation, named for famous American gastronome James Beard, is perhaps best known for handing out its annual James Beard Awards—medals considered the Oscars of the food industry. But it's also a platform for education and empowerment through food, offering advocacy boot camps for chefs, scholarships for the continuing culinary education and Women's Leadership programs that tackle the gender imbalance in the food industry.

It was the latter that brought foodies and farmers together at Mai Thai on June 30. A portion of the $70-per-person fee they'd paid in exchange for a four-course dinner and wine pairing was going straight to the James Beard Foundation's leadership programs for women. According to JBF Director of Sponsor Relations Victoria Jordan Rodriguez, who shared a table with Burns for the dinner, supportive restaurants, wineries and other industry partners host 40-50 such food events on the foundation's behalf each year.

"Friends of James Beard Benefits like this give chefs and restaurants the opportunity to have fundraising events in their own space," she said over briny oysters and prosecco before the dinner began. She added that recently, the foundation has "really put an emphasis on" gender equality in the kitchen, responding to dismal statistics regarding representation.

Fittingly, that disparity was the topic of the first season of this year's James Beard Award-winning podcast Copper & Heat, which was produced by two College of Idaho graduates. The season, "Be A Girl," is a direct response to the fact that "women represent only 19% of chefs, and 7% of head chefs across the culinary world," even though in recent years, women students have outnumbered their male counterparts in schools like the Culinary Institute of America.

That was a topic under discussion at Mai Thai over generous portions of lamb and glasses of local wine from Garden City's Telaya Wine Co. Though Chef Scheihing had cooked at the James Beard House before, representing Mai Thai as the first Idaho envoy to do so, guests speculated that he had outdone himself. The fish jelly sauce- and crispy Thai basil-topped lamb larb and was a crescendo of flavors on a crunchy prawn cracker, and the massaman curry was the night's best dish, starring a melt-in-your-mouth lamb shank wafting the scent of spiced Christmas cookies: cinnamon, cardamom and star anise.

Surprisingly, none of the courses were paired with Riesling or Gewürztraminer, two wines largely considered standbys for Asian cuisine. Stopping to pour glasses of Sauvignon Blanc (with the larb) and Grenache Blanc/Sauvignon Blanc "Anam" (with the tom sum), Telaya Co-owner Earl Sullivan said he relished the opportunity to leave "the hot Asian/sweet white path" and explore dry whites with the illusion of sweetness.

The one downside to dinner was that the portions were as staggering as the flavors. Even so, no one let a full stomach stop them from devouring dessert, a strawberry cream and mint chantilly tart courtesy of Janjou Patisserie's Chef Moshit Mizrachi-Gabbitas.

Mizarchi-Gabbitas had picked the mint for the tarts from her own backyard garden, and was in her element that night as one of Idaho's few James Beard Award nominees. Over the award's 30-year history, only a handful of Idahoans have made it to the nomination stage, including Kris Komori (then of State & Lemp) and Richard Langston (then of Cafe Vicino), while a slightly larger pool have been semifinalists, like Nate Whitley (The Modern) and Michael Runsvold (Acme Bakeshop).

The fact that the awards nearly always go to chefs from larger cities was another hot dinner topic. When it came up at her table, Rodriguez said that one of the James Beard Foundation's goals is to encourage more applicants from cities like Boise, which have up-and-coming food scenes yet to register on the national consciousness. Later, addressing the crowd, Sullivan gave what could have passed for a pep talk on the matter.

"This is what we're capable of guys," he said. "The wine, the food, this is what we have going on here, and it can be world class."

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