NEW YORK — Angelina Branca, who cooks for up to 50 people at a time at Sate Kampar, her Malaysian restaurant in South Philadelphia, walked into a banquet room at Pier 60 on the Hudson River on Friday afternoon.
Her eyes grew wide. Stretched out on rows of tables were 600 white rectangular plates.
Each required a stick of chicken satay; a small portion of achat (a seasoned salad of carrots, cucumbers, and peanuts); and a square of otak-otak (a grilled fish cake). Letting out a mild whistle, she and a few helpers began plating.
The $500-a-plate dinner, a hundred miles from East Passyunk Avenue, was out of the ordinary for several reasons, aside from its sheer size. This was the James Beard Foundation’s annual Media Awards, and the guest list included hundreds of journalists, TV, radio, and web producers and personalities, and food and travel influencers from around the country. It also was part of a bold sponsorship move by Visit Philadelphia, the tourism-marketing agency.
Visit Philly had bought itself a place at the table, literally, in a first for a city tourism agency.
“Where else can we get as many editors and [influential] people in one place?” asked Jeff Guaracino, Visit Philly president and chief executive. The strategy: Expose Philadelphia restaurants to the national media, which will in turn visit Philadelphia and generate publicity.
“We wanted to make a statement,” Guaracino said, adding that he was not contractually able to disclose the finances, only to say, “It is worth it.” He said it was much less expensive than piggybacking onto the bigger events, such as the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, whose direct and indirect costs can hit six figures.
Guaracino also had a chance to share the stage for a few minutes with event host Tyra Banks and to pitch the attendees himself.
The Beard Foundation, a national nonprofit focused on advancing the culinary arts, has had Philadelphia on its radar for several years. Last year, it traveled from Manhattan to Philadelphia to announce the finalists for its vaunted restaurant awards — considered the Oscars of the food world. The year before, Philadelphians had scored a rare hat trick: Stephen Starr won for restaurateur of the year, Michael Solomonov for chef of the year, and Greg Vernick for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region.
The Beard’s 2019 restaurant awards will be presented Monday in Chicago. Philadelphia is represented by Marc Vetri, who is up for outstanding chef; Zahav, up for outstanding restaurant; Ellen Yin (Fork, High Street on Market, and High Street on Hudson) for outstanding restaurateur; Jesse Ito (Royal Izakaya) for rising-star chef of the year; and Rich Landau (Vedge) and Cristina Martinez (South Philly Barbacoa) for best chef/Mid-Atlantic.
Besides Branca at Sate Kampar, Visit Philly enlisted several previous Beard semifinalists. The Widjojo family, who own Hardena, an Indonesian restaurant in South Philadelphia, and Yin and Roberto Sella at High Street on Market in Old City were drafted to cook the dinner. Tova Du Plessis of Essen Bakery in South Philadelphia, Kate Jacoby of Vedge in Center City, and Robert Toland of Terrain Cafe in Glen Mills and Devon were recruited for the dessert reception. Pier 60′s staff was responsible for the hors d’oeuvres.
Visit Philly paid for the Philadelphians’ ingredients and the rental of a refrigerated truck that picked up the prepped food in the Philadelphia kitchens and brought everything to Manhattan.
The New York dinner kept the chefs in their home kitchens for nearly a week as they prepped. Branca grilled 100 pounds of chicken over her signature grill, which burns coconut shells to impart a unique taste. “We all felt so proud,” Branca said later, after Guaracino led the chefs up to the stage to accept applause.
The afternoon in Pier 60′s vast kitchen had a social aspect. Diana and Maylia Widjojo, who run the day to day at Hardena, brought along their sister Stephanie and their parents, Harry and Ena. All worked together to create udang balado, a single grilled shrimp with a sweet-and-savory red pepper sauce, coconut milk rice, and spiced coconut salad.
A few feet away, Toland was finishing a chocolate terrarium with chef Ryan Bloome while chef Eli Kulp was consulting with High Street on Market chef Andrew Farley about the lamb riblettes, which were served with pickles, horseradish, rye, and mustard alongside a pretzel bread that said, “Philly.” Farley brought along chef Eli Collins to help. The High Street crew is accustomed to larger events. “We do these maybe once a year,” Collins said. “You get ready, you get set up [in an unfamiliar kitchen], and you try to cook your way out of it.”