Yazoo City's Barbecue Princess Leslie Roark Scott recently took on the role of Head Chef in a cooking showcase at the James Beard House in New York City.
The invitation-only showcase was one of many hosted for elite chefs throughout the year at the home of the cooking legend, James Beard, who in the 1950s was a pioneer for the home cooks of today.
Leslie Scott, who has already gained national recognition as a chef by participating in competitions and on Food Network shows such as “Chopped”, was honored to receive this invitation.
"I would say that this would be the top honor of my career," she said. "I can't think of anything that would be a higher honor."
Leslie received the invitation from the James Beard Foundation in the late spring, and after giving her consent to participate in the showcase, she immediately started planning.
"I had to give a menu proposal and everything had to be approved well ahead of time," Leslie said. "We had three months to plan it and three months to worry about it."
Part of Leslie's preparation work included not only planning out the menu for a 6-course meal, but also the food and wine pairings, table decorations, gathering and transporting materials, and preparing some of the food ahead of time.
Leslie said that she was blessed to have the support of her talented friends at home in Yazoo City and in the cooking industry.
She credits Holly Coleman of Good Hope General Mercantile for helping her plan out table decorations and centerpieces, and for providing her with a list of seasonal flowers she was able to collect once she arrived in New York City.
Leslie was thankful for the help she received from Chey Fulgham, an old friend from Yazoo City and a professional wine expert, who helped her choose the cocktail and wine pairings for each course.
Because of her love of everything Yazoo, Leslie made sure to bring along a little bit of home with her to the showcase.
"We took Simmons Catfish with us and fried it there," she said. "We took Mississippi Cheesestraws to showcase, and Tony's Tamales, which is native to Bentonia."
Leslie said that she also took along eggs from her personal chicken coop, as well as some Pineapple and Lemon Curd made by Dr. Hugh Moore of Yazoo City.
As the day of the showcase was drawing near, Leslie and her family, as well as the rest of the Ubon's crew loaded up and traveled to the Big Apple, arriving the night before the event.
Leslie added that she was grateful for their Ubon's Fry Master, Terence Winters, who made the long drive to New York, transporting most of the pre-made foods and other materials directly to the James Beard House.
On the next morning, August 2nd, the whole crew was up and ready to get started, greeting the James Beard House staff at 8 a.m.
"We were really too early to be there," Leslie said. "So my friend Gloria Chalbot and I started making notes on what needed to be done."
While the kitchen crew set to work inside the James Beard House, Leslie and Gloria spent most of that morning gathering flowers for the table decorations and made a trip to a local grocery store to pick up a few last minute ingredients. After a quick lunch she was back in the kitchen and ready to get started.
"Around noon we started getting our stuff hot," Leslie said. "I had to make slaw and small things like that, but we had already smoked our turnip greens, we made our tomato and okra gravy, and we did the brisket (in Yazoo City) as well."
While everything seemed to be going smoothly, Leslie and her staff still ran into a few obstacles.
With the absence of both a deep fryer and a smoker inside the James Beard House, Leslie and her crew had to think fast and made a few last minute adjustments to the cooking plan.
"My friend Craig Verhage took the frozen ribs and smoked them at a friend’s restaurant in Brooklyn," she said. "Our Fry Master, Terrence, ended up cooking enough fish for 70 people with a pot of grease on the stove. We figured it out and we made it work."
By the late afternoon, most of the food was being prepared, and even Leslie's son Jacob Scott was able to take part in the cooking action by creating a buttermilk biscuit baked for an extra four minutes with a quail egg in the center.
In the hours before the dinner started, Leslie assumed the role of Head Chef and presented the menu and other instructions to the wait staff.
"I had never worked with a wait staff or a Maitre D'," she said. "I had to present to (them) what the meal was going to be because they were the ones who would be answering the questions."
At precisely 7 o'clock, the dinner began with cocktails and hors-d'oeuvres for guests.
During this gathering, the guests were served a choice of catfish pate', cheesestraws, and kibbee, paired with a Ubon's signature Bloody Mary or Lazy Magnolia Beer.
At 7:30 p.m., the guests were seated and began their first course, which was a tamale plate consisting of a corn husk with a tamale laid over it, drizzled with hot sauce and grilled cut corn, with a small packet of hot sauce on the side, paired with Chenin Blanc wine.
"Twelve minutes after the tamales went out, we served our next course which was the Simmons catfish, hushpuppies, cole slaw, and home fries," Leslie said. "This was also paired with the Chenin Blanc wine from Lange Twins vineyard."
After another 12 minutes had passed, the third course was served, which included beef brisket made from Wagyu Beef from the Flora Butcher, covered in tomato and okra gravy, complete with one of Jacob Scott's buttermilk biscuits with the quail egg baked inside.
The fourth course was the next group of plates to be sent out.
"You should have seen the plates," Leslie said. "The ribs were perfect, we had the smoked turnip greens, we had the deviled eggs from Yazoo City, we had a little square of cornbread, and then three rib bones with Craig Verhage's rib sauce, I mean it was just gorgeous."
Both the third and fourth courses were paired with a Bordeaux wine which also came from Lange Twins vineyard.
The final course, dessert, came with a pineapple surprise. It was a brioche bread pudding with a hint of pineapple mixed in and topped with Dr. Hugh Moore's lemon and pineapple curd, paired with the Ubon's specialty Bourbon Pineapple and Sprite cocktail.
"I didn’t realize this until after, but James Beard used the pineapple symbol heavily," Leslie said. "Pineapple was considered a sign of welcome and he used that as a sign of hospitality. We have always done the Ubon's special everywhere we go, so to have it end with a welcome was exactly what we were shooting for."
After the dinner, the restaurant closed and the Ubon's crew along with several close friends and guests celebrated in the kitchen for a job well done.
Overall, Leslie said that the dinner guests loved the variety of the meal and were especially blown away by the catfish.
"People were shocked by the amount of diversity that lives here in the Mississippi Delta," she said. "They were surprised by the different things, like the kibbee and the tamales, it just threw everybody off in a really good way because it forced them to rethink what they thought they knew about Mississippi. I am constantly reminded that food is such a great way to bring people together and that it can forge connections with people that you just wouldn't expect."