Lee Chizmar had to tell a story about his piece of America – namely the Lehigh Valley -- but he wasn’t using words or pictures in his performance space. He was using the real thing – local farm-fresh ingredients -- and labeling his nine-dish menu creation, “The Craft of Lehigh Valley.” For the Bethlehem chef, it was a night for him and seven of his chefs to shine in his first solo dinner presentation at the historic James Beard House in New York’s Greenwich Village.
The four-story, village townhouse was the private home of cookbook author and teacher James Beard, said to be the inspiration behind Julia Child and a mentor to professional chefs and food enthusiasts around the world. Following his death in 1985, the home was transformed into a center for the culinary arts and a “performance space” for visiting chefs.
“Cooking at the James Beard House is something we work and strive for as chefs,” Chizmar said, of his appearance on June 19. “When you think of how much history is behind the House, how many incredible chefs from around the world have cooked there before you, that in itself is the grand prize. It’s something that doesn’t make you nervous but anxious. It goes with the job. It was a moment between the first and second course that it settled in where I actually was.”
Chizmar, 38, is chef/owner of the award-winning Bolete (pronounced bo-leet and Latin for ‘a wild mushroom’) restaurant located in a 200-year-old farmhouse at 1740 Seidersville Road, Bethlehem, Salisbury Township. The eatery has been featured on the Food Network’s “Best Thing I Ever Ate” and has garnered several “Best of” awards in the region for its farm-to-table new American offerings.
Its menu isn’t the only thing home-grown. Chizmar is a 1994 graduate of Salisbury High School and a 2000 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. He’s been mentored by some of the food industry’s finest, including Bradley Ogden and Jeremy Sewall in San Francisco, where he was introduced to farmers’ markets and “perfect produce” peddled by local farmers. He came under the wing of Michael Schlow in Boston, where he was introduced to New England’s bounty of the sea.
Cooking at the James Beard House this time around was Chizmar’s second opportunity. In 2010, he cooked there as part of a group of noted American chefs featured in the “Harvest to Heat: Cooking with America’s Best Chefs, Farmers and Artisans” cookbook release.
Despite being on crutches and in a leg brace for dislocating his knee some weeks earlier in Tae Kwon Do, there was no way Chizmar wouldn’t go on. During a four-hour, behind-the-scenes livestream on the JBF Kitchen Cam, he and his crew could be seen preparing the Lehigh Valley menu featuring the best in home-grown ingredients. There were oysters, mushrooms, green garlic soup with snails, house-smoked trout, pepper-crusted beef carpaccio, and pork shoulder with beet barbecue sauce. Each course was complemented with local craft beer pairings from ShawneeCraft Brewing Company, Smithfield Township, Monroe County.
As for his 70-plus dinner guests – including wife/Bolete general manager Erin Shea, daughters Colton 3 ½ and Cashin, 4 months, parents Will (formerly with the Wood Co.) and Linda Chizmar, and younger sister Sage – Chizmar said it seemed like everyone had a different favorite course.
“There was a feeling that each course was a labor of love,” said Victoria Jordan Rodriguez, director of house operations and house events for The James Beard Foundation, which maintains the James Beard House. “As the evening progressed, the thing that struck me the most was the freshness of each component, from the absolutely perfect strawberries on the fluke ceviche, to the plump green peas with the scallop (and what a righteous bronzed crust on that mollusk!), to the huckleberries in the dessert and everything in between. When describing the Anson Mills grits in the pork course, Chef Chizmar said even the corn was just milled this week.”
Izabela Wojcik, director of house programming for the James Beard Foundation, schedules more than 200 events a year for the six nights a week that the venue is open. Among her responsibilities is overseeing proposals from organizations regarding appearances, private fundraisers, and also staying abreast of the latest in restaurants, chefs, and food trends.
Since 2006, Susan Ungaro has been president of the James Beard Foundation, carrying out its mission “to celebrate, nurture, and honor America’s diverse culinary heritage through programs that educate and inspire.” Among her accomplishments has been the expansion of its culinary scholarship program, and serving as host for its traveling national food festival, Taste America. In September 2012, she collaborated with the U.S. Department of State to develop the “Diplomatic Culinary Partnership,” a new initiative to elevate the role of culinary engagement in America’s formal and public diplomacy efforts.
Ungaro was responsible for bringing the annual James Beard Awards Gala to Lincoln Center. Established in 1990, the awards are the “Oscars of the Food Industry” in recognizing culinary professionals for excellence and achievement in their fields. Next year’s ceremony and gala reception will be held for the first time outside of New York City at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Footnotes: Susan Ungaro was a classmate of mine from our days in communications at William Paterson College in Wayne, New Jersey. She went on to be editor-in-chief of Family Circle magazine for 27 years. I applaud her and the staff of the James Beard Foundation for bringing our Lehigh Valley to the table/stage!
Chizmar’s staff included: Nate Leonard, sous chef; Mario Juarez, lead line chef; Cody Rohrbach, Alex Moccia and Matt Lykens, line chefs; John Glagola, pastry chef, and Israel Marcona, Extern.
Pennsylvania farms included: Liberty Gardens, Coopersburg; Teprovich Farms, Germansville; Beets Workin’ Farm, Oley; 14-Acre Farm, Lehighton; Epic Acre Farm, Mertztown; Eckerton Hill Farm, Hamburg; Oley Valley Mushroom Farm, Oley; Primordia Mushroom Farm, Lenhartsville; Profeta Farms, Readington, New Jersey, and Keepsake Farm, Nazareth.
The skies will be filled with dazzling colors this Independence Day weekend. The Reading Public Museum will be a contributor with its second annual “Red, White & Blues Party” on Friday at 7 p.m., in the Stone Terrace tent. The free event features a special performance by The James Supra Blues Band, followed by a fireworks display next door at the West Reading Playground. “Doors” open at 6 p.m.
For further info: readingpublicmuseum.org
Also on Friday will be the Reading Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Andrew Constantine, presenting a free “Star Spangled Spectacular” community concert at 8 p.m., at FirstEnergy Stadium. Gates open at 6 p.m. Soloist is Charles Reid, with a special appearance by the Berks Youth Chorus. Following the concert will be a fireworks display. The event is funded by the Berks County Community Foundation. Rain date is Saturday.
Free tickets are available at the stadium and at Boscov’s courtesy desks while supplies last. The RSO also will be collecting non-perishable food items and canned goods at the event to support the Greater Berks Food Bank.
For further info: readingsymphony.org
It’s a “Concert Under the Stars” when the Riverside Symphonia kicks off its 25th anniversary season on Saturday at 8 p.m., at Tinicum Park on River Road, Erwinna, Bucks County. Gates open at 6 p.m. for picnic suppers. Tickets can be purchased in advance or at the gate. The event will be held rain or shine.