In Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, there is a cozy brick house where the most promising and established figures in the cooking world come together to educate, inspire, and foster a deeper understanding of culinary culture. As the legendary home of culinary authority James Beard, the Beard House is now the headquarters for the James Beard Foundation. Executive chef Mike Wajda and the culinary team at Proof on Main were recently selected to present a dinner to Foundation members and the public at the Beard House. We sat down with Chef Wajda to learn more about the experience. Your dinner was titled, The Art of Kentucky. Can you share why you chose that name to accompany your menu?
MW: The dinner was full of ingredients from Kentucky and The Ohio River Valley, showcasing what our region has to offer. I wanted to include art within the name, not only because of who 21c is as a company, but because I find so much of my menu inspired from the art that surrounds us. One of the artists included within the 21c collection whose creative mind inspires me is Anthony Goicolea. I was overjoyed when he agreed to not only attend the dinner, but collaborate on menu design.
Can you share more about how you were able to collaborate with Anthony Goicolea for the dinner?
MW: Anthony took an amazing photo at Woodland Farm, 21c co-founders’ home farm and where a large portion of the meat and produce are harvested for Proof on Main. Since James Beard (JBF) recommended creating a souvenir menu for the diners, we decided to print the photo on one side of a linen napkin, with our JBF dinner menu on the other. Anthony was also gracious enough to speak during the dinner about his work, which was very organic and connected with my overall menu inspiration.
How did you prepare for your dinner?
MW: Menu planning with the team is crucial, it was important to me to have them involved articulating the dishes together. Prep lists, sourcing from local farmers and foragers, preserving ingredients, and flying with all our ingredients was nothing short of controlled chaos; it was great!
Did the ingredients you were able to source from local farmers and foragers play a large part in deciding what you would cook? Or did you already have a menu in mind?
MW: We looked at the time of year and what the best of KY had to offer for the season. Spring had sprung here in KY, while NYC still had snow, making it even more enjoyable to take them things such as ramps, peas, and fiddleheads from our region.While writing the menu we also took an inventory of all of our pickled and preserved items. Some had aged for several years for a special occasion, such as this, so we were super excited to use them.
On your Instagram (@mlwajda), you mentioned it was a historic moment for you as a chef to be able to cook at the Beard House. Can you share more about what it meant to you and your team to cook there?
MW: Straight out of culinary school I went to NYC and got lost for several years in kitchens. Those experiences and mentors, like Will Schorkopf of Gillete Stadium, Markus Glocker of Bâtard, and Ron Paprocki of Gotham Bar & Grill, are what made me the chef I am today. It was great to see those mentors at the dinner and have them excited to see me back in the city cooking. Being able to showcase my team and Proof on Main at the Beard House was an incredible honor. I couldn’t have been happier with my team and the experience we gave the diners that night.
We’ve heard that guests have to walk right though the kitchen in order to reach the cocktail area and backyard before heading upstairs to dinner. What was it like allowing guests to have a behind the scenes look at how you were preparing their meal?
MW: I love the idea of interacting with our guests throughout the whole experience. This was a great way to give them a sneak peek of what was to come and introduce myself with canapés. With Proof on Main being an open kitchen, we are pretty accustomed to guest interaction.
And lastly, what was your favorite overall moment from the dinner?
MW: Favorite moment was speaking with the guests, followed by walking down the stairs from the dining room with an overwhelming feeling of joy that our team crushed the dinner!