The T.J. Martell Foundation’s 17th Annual Nashville Best Cellars Dinner took place at the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel in an event space of true beauty. A collaboration of food, wine, and music all to support the T.J. Martell Foundation creates an incredible atmosphere. Projections of watercolor dancers adorned the walls while the tables were dropped in red and black fabrics.
In previous years, the dinner has been conceived and prepared by a single chef. While the past prowess and execution by these chefs has been impeccable, it was time to freshen things up. Guests enjoyed five courses from five different James Beard Award winning chefs. As per years past, each table was paired with a wine host who carefully selected pairings for each course. The dinner proved to be a sensory experience that left each guest full to the brim yet somehow wanting more.
First Course: Danfuskie Crab Rise
The first course, prepared by Sean Brock of Nashville’s Husk, certainly wowed taste buds. Danfuskie crab was pulled and sat atop a bed of rice. It was rustic and authentic with clean flavors reminiscent of sea water and down home cooking. Was it expected? No. Accepted? Happily and wishing there was more. Brock was received his James Beard Award in 2010 for Best Southeast Chef. He has also been nominated for Outstanding Chef and Rising Star Chef, as well as receiving awards for his first cookbook Heritage.
Second Course: Fonduta Egg Tart
Where the first course was light and sent whispers from the ocean, the second course covered you with a blanket on the forest floor — conceived and executed by Ashley Christensen of AC Restaurants, Raleigh NC. Yet this fonduta egg tart with asparagus, confit’d mushrooms, and charred ramp vinaigrette shown far beyond the asparagus. Playing on the rustic themes of Chef Brock’s dish, Chef Christensen encompassed cold, warm, and wonderful all in one. Christensen was awarded the James Beard Award in 2014 for Best Southeast Chef.
Third Course: Sorpresine
Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman of Memphis staples Hog & Hominy, Porcellino’s, Andrew Michael delivered above and beyond with this third dish. This perfectly al dente pasta blended elements of South America with the memory of Italy. Green garlic, guanciale (cured pork cheek), noce condimenta (nut ragu), and ricotta salata rounded out this bold, giving dish. It boasted simple yet humble flavors, a subtle reminder that good food and big flavors don’t have to be complicated. Between the crumbling meat and texture of the nuts, this dish struck all chords. Ticer and Hudman were nominated for the James Beard Award Best Chef Southeast in 2012, 2013, 2014 and are currently nominated in 2016.
Fourth Course: Brisket & Grits
By far the largest and most filling portion, large slabs of brisket sat atop a bed of sour grits conceived by Tandy Wilson of Nashville’s City House. Slow, low, and wonderful, the spice in this dish creeped around never pushing to hard. The brisket was dry aged with a black pepper and fennel rub. Paired perfectly with the gremolata and lettuces, I wish I could’ve finished every bite of this dish. Too bad they don’t do to go boxes…. Chef Wilson was nominated for the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast in 2012, 2013, and 2014.
Fifth Course: Pavlova
Straight out of childhood dreams, a baseball sized strawberry and basil meringue sat atop a bed of strawberry puree, black pepper, and pine nut. Chefs Ticer and Hudman tackled this dish as well, bringing just as much flair as they did the first. Bold, to choose a fruit dessert instead of chocolate when pairing with wine; though the gusto of this delicious doubt washed away any doubt. Perfectly crumbly, melt in your mouth, and nothing but sweet. My table was lucky enough to enjoy this with a 1966 Dow Vintage Port to knock the socks off anyone. A lovely end to a meal I wish didn’t have to end.
At the end of the event, the room came together to raise even more money for a wonderful cause. A celebration of life and the great pleasures it can bring, made even more special by the T.J. Martell Foundation — an organization that truly cares about cancer patients and their families. Until next year, there’s still so much more to be done.
By Carly Browning