Asheville’s Sovereign Remedies restaurant took a team to New York in the summer of 2018 to serve up a dinner at the famed James Beard House. Here’s a recounting.

Graham House
Chef Graham House of Sovereign Remedies restaurant and cocktail bar in Asheville preparing plates for a James Beard House dinner in the summer of 2018./ photo by Jason Sandford

NEW YORK CITY – The dinner started with a kiss.

Chef Graham House, briefly alone in the quiet kitchen, moved through his final preparations. Piles of peppers, glowing with the very essence of summer green, crowded a counter. Plates sat stacked, ready to be decorated and deployed.

Anticipation hung in the air as House’s fiancé, Veronica Ahumada, arrived with last-minute encouragement, sealed with a kiss. She moved to the dining room. He tied on his apron.

This was a big night for House and his crew. He and his core team of Melissa Hsu, Philip BohoefferCharles Lee and Charlie Hodge, who opened Sovereign Remedies restaurant in downtown Asheville with his partner Sunil Patel in 2014, were stepping onto a renowned stage. They would be serving a dinner, titled “Modern Appalachia,” at the famed James Beard House in New York City.

They were representing a restaurant working hard to garner as much notice for its food as it had for its cocktails. They were representing a city still yearning for ever-wider recognition for its farm-to-table food and its unique take on Appalachian cuisine.

Could one dinner do all this? Charlie Hodge wasn’t sure about all that. His real goal, he told me, was to simply keep building his restaurant family by having them all pull together toward a common goal – serving up an impressive dinner on a big stage.

***

It’s not an exaggeration to describe as Herculean the effort it takes for a local, independent restaurant to stage a dinner at the Beard House. Schedules must be arranged, menus written, food procured, accommodations secured, transportation nailed down.

Hodge and House certainly knew what they were taking on. House meticulously scouted locally sourced ingredients for the dinner, just as he always does for the restaurant, while Hodge nailed down other logistics. To be sure all the food they’d be using was as fresh as possibly, Hodge and House decided to rent a truck and drive up to the big city themselves rather than ship it some other way that would be out of their control. Hodge had to find and rent accommodations for his crew for a few days. The James Beard Foundation kicks in a modest stipend, but there’s no money to be made at the dinner for a restaurant owner – the endeavor, in fact, will cost Hodge thousands of dollars out his own pocket.

Charlie Hodge, owner of Sovereign Remedies restaurant, (second from left) mixes up a drink at the dinner his crew served at the James Beard House in NYC./ photo by Jason Sandford

Still, cooking a dinner at the famous Beard House opens a new level of recognition for an emerging chef like House, and the payoff can be equally extravagant. Catch the eye of the right foodie, critic or Beard Foundation supporter (or Instagram influencer in this day and age), and you’re off and running. A James Beard Award nomination, not mention a full-on award, is worth its weight in gold.

The goal of a Beard House dinner, though, is not winning an award. It’s about networking (just about all of Asheville’s best known chefs have cooked at the Beard House, and several have one or more James Beard Award nominations.) It’s forging a unit that execute a dinner at a high level, night in and night out. It’s a right of passage.

“We have a tight crew and we’re getting to that higher level” of top-notch execution night in and night out, House tells me. “We’re not going to stop pushing.”

***

I am humbled and honored every time I have the chance to cook at the James Beard House. James Beard himself was a catalyst to telling the world (in a time before the hype of food TV and celebrity chefs) that American food is a real thing and that we deserve a place at the international table in terms of our high quality restaurants, food and recipes. So to be able to cook in his kitchen where so many other incredible chefs have also cooked is one of the highest honors a chef can have. I have so many friends and chefs I look up to that have cooked there. It’s really amazing to think about all of the talent that has passed through this hallowed kitchen. –Chef William Dissen, The Market Place

***

Charlie Hodge has built community wherever he’s been. He’s worked in the bar business for more than two decades. After working with two friends to open a successful nightclub in Portland Oregon, he opened seven more programs during his eight-year stay there, including the renown Clyde Common in the Ace Hotel (listed in David Wonderich’s Best Bars). He helped organize the Portland Bartenders Guild.

When he arrived in Asheville, Hodge had a singular vision: open a sun filled café featuring a botanical-rich craft cocktail bar, that gives a chef and supporting farmers full reign to express what’s happening on the farm right alongside perfecting the crafts of fermenting, preserving and curing.

Hodge explains this all to the small crowd gathered this summer night for the Beard House dinner, and they’re listening closely. The name “Sovereign Remedies” itself is significant, Hodge says, noting that in the poverty-stricken hollers of the Appalachian Mountains, families had to be self-sufficient. So early settlers learned how to create their own medicine, their own sovereign remedies, from the biodiversity that surrounded them.

At the farmers market in the River Arts District, Chef Graham House picks out fruits and vegetables that he’ll use in his cooking at Asheville’s Sovereign Remedies restaurant./ photo by Jason Sandford

In House, Hodge found just the right chef partner to see through that vision. The two connected in 2016. Hodge grew up in Brevard, where nature’s bounty was literally right outside his front door. That’s where he first learned to forage and to love fresh veggies.

House went on to spend a decade honing his style at world-renowned restaurants around the world. His stops included Osteria Del Bouche in Lake Como, Italy, Redd in Yountville, Calif., and  4th & Swift in Atlanta. He also worked as the executive sous chef at Prospect in San Francisco under chefs Nancy Oakes and Pam Mazzola.

House’s reverence for local, seasonal produce and agriculture shows in his veggie-forward dishes and aesthetically bold presentation. He’s also adept at fermenting, dehydrating and pickling techniques that aim to use all parts of the vegetables he’s working with. And though House does not consider himself a “vegetarian chef,” he admits that meat and other proteins are usually after afterthought when it comes to dreaming up a dish.

When I met House at the River Arts District farmer’s market before the big dinner, he moved quickly to sample vegetables and chat with farmers. He tells me he just shows up, grabs what looks and tastes the best, and goes from there. “I rarely come up with a menu more than a week out,” he says.

“It’s the best, creatively. I would rather approach it that way, rather than having my mind made up, especially when you’re dealing with vegetables.”

***

The dining room is starting to buzz as House and his crew send out the first plate, stone fruit and peppers with peanut milk, cucumber, purslane, and angelica. It comes after the crowd of about 75 have already enjoyed a round of drinks and hors d’oeurves, such as fried squash blossoms and crispy chicken skins with chile honey and sumac, in a little garden.

The James Beard Foundation is based at the historic James Beard House between 6th and 7th avenues in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. James Beard, an early champion of local markets, hosted the first TV food program in 1946 and wrote several cookbooks that influenced a generation of chefs. The history of the place is as tangible as any of the food served there.

Guests first walk through the Beard House kitchen to meet the chef and watch the team work. A reception on the ground floor garden follows, before diners walk up to the second-floor dining room to enjoy a five- or six-course meal with wine pairings. A brief question-and-answer period ends the night. At the reception outside, a handful of Asheville folks connect while admiring the effort that’s gone into pulling it all off.

One of Chef Graham House’s creations for the Sovereign Remedies dinner at the James Beard House: summer squash with okra, sour cherries, Chicken of the Woods mushrooms and daylily butter./ Photo by Jeff Gurwin courtesy of James Beard House

Inside, the dinner plates arrive on the table at a steady pace as attendees (members of the public paid $175 a ticket) savor every bite and get to know one another around a circular tables seating eight to 10 people each. Eating, chatting, commenting on the flavor combinations – it’s a foodie’s dream come true.

The dinner menu is summer, embodied, with its foraged mushrooms and tomatoes and okra and more. (More food photos of the dinner here.) Folks are full and a little tipsy when Hodge, House and the team come out to take a bow and thank the group for attending. It’s a beautiful night.

***

Cooking at the beard house was something that I’ll remember forever. I got to cook with one of my best friends, Billy Durney, and a crew of some of New York city’s best chefs. Missy Robbins had just won the Beard award for New York, and Mark Ladner was also a Beard winner, along with Mark Iacono of Lucali Pizza in Brooklyn. I love Italian food more than most things, and we did an “Italian smokehouse” theme. It was so amazing to rub elbows with that crew in Mr. Beard’s house and that awesome kitchen (everyone says it’s small, but it’s not at all) in that beautiful city is something I’ll never forget. … And there’s a bathroom made of all mirrors. You gotta go see that if anything.  -Chef Elliot Moss, Buxton Hall

***

After the dinner, the crew gathers at a dive bar somewhere nearby to have a Pickleback shot and a beer. Hodge was exhausted. Happy, but exhausted. With the dinner over, he’d accomplished everything he’d set out to do. His restaurant family made it through the fire.

When I spoke to house a month or two after the event, he shared that same sentiment.

“I feel like we turned some heads, and I think it will be good for us in the long run,” House said. “I think we’re getting closer” to that every elusive goal of consistent quality served regularly at a very high level. “You just put your head down and work your ass off.”

The menu for Modern Appalachia at the James Beard House, August 2018

Menu
Hors d’Oeuvre
Crispy Chicken Skins with Chile Honey and Sumac

Fried Squash Blossoms

American Pig 22-Month-Aged Prosciutto

Celtuce Toasts with Milkweed and Rosebud Capers

Sovereign Remedy Signature Cocktails

Dinner
Stone Fruit and Peppers with Peanut Milk, Cucumber, Purslane, and Angelica

(Drink: My Name is June: Serviceberry with Shiso and Copper & Kings American Brandy)

Tomato with Garlic Scapes, Melon, Marigold, and Sunflower

(Channing Daughters Cabernet Franc Rosato 2017)

Summer Squash with Okra, Sour Cherries, Chicken of the Woods, and Daylily Butter

(Granbazán Etiqueta Ámbar Albariño 2016)

American Pig Porchetta with Fairy Tale Eggplant, Whipped Grits, Amaranth, and Green Tomato

(Tenuta Santori Rosso Piceno Superiore 2015)

Corn with Blueberries and Chanterelle Mushrooms

(Sovereign Amaro)

Editor’s note: Charlie Hodge invited my wife and I to attend the Sovereign Remedies dinner at the James Beard House, an honor that we considered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Hodge supplied us the tickets and accommodations for our weekend stay, and for that, we are forever grateful. 

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