Command Performance

By Robert Plunket Photography by Dale Clancy April 1, 2011

Sean Murphy isn’t hungry. True, it’s 7 a.m. and he has a busy day ahead of him—one of the busiest of his life, in fact—but all he can eat is a bun and a cup of coffee. There’s a great restaurant downstairs in the lobby of the hotel, but breakfast is definitely not the most important meal of this particular day.

In exactly 12 hours, in the venerable townhouse of the James Beard Foundation in New York’s Greenwich Village, Sean will present what is called a Performance Dinner. In addition to his staff and some friends who have accompanied him up from Florida, the audience will be a cross section of epicures and foodies, including some of the world’s most knowledgeable—and finicky.

The menu is planned to highlight the food at The Concession, the opulent golf club near Sarasota where Sean is culinary director. Sean’s first visit to the Beard House, in 2005, was under the auspices of his legendary Holmes Beach restaurant, the Beach Bistro. Now he’s been invited back, but with a tradition-breaking twist. This is the first time that a private golf club has been invited for a Beard dinner.

It’s a cold, cloudy morning in New York, with a blustery wind that reminds Sean of his native Nova Scotia. From his hotel window he can see the wet and leafless trees of Gramercy Park. His wife, Susan, is up and working the phones, calling here and there, coordinating the day’s complicated flow chart of events.

So far, so good. True, a container packed with tomato soup and chocolate sauce broke, mixing the two. “Taste it,” Sean told the chef, just in case a Beard House miracle had occurred. But it hadn’t. It tasted awful. Replacement soup and sauce would have to be made. Another task to add to the day’s endless “to do” list.

Sean is going over the menu one more time. It’s a sort of elaborate tasting menu, starting with Roberto’s Farm Salad. Roberto is one of the kitchen workers, and his concoction of greens, strawberries, citrus and tomatoes is topped by a scoop of grapefruit and ginger granita, which melts slowly, like a snow cone, as you eat the salad. Next comes red snapper with pomelo and a Key lime sesame sauce, followed by Sean’s famous Floribbean grouper, with

a coconut and cashew crust. These three dishes typify classic Florida cuisine: fresh fish, and fruits both sweet and tart.

The next two selections display Sean’s signature technique of taking what is generally considered a “fancy” dish and giving it a twist, adding some humbler attitude or accouterment and coming up with a sort of high/low combination. The Gulf Coast holiday pan roast, for instance, is a luxurious takeoff on diner food: foie gras on a focaccio “raft,” floating in a seafood broth made with curry-flavored cream. And the dinner proper ends with grilled domestic lamb lollipops: “Big Kid Candy,” as the menu puts it, herb-grilled and served with rosemary-port demi-glace. And yes, you pick them up with your fingers and nibble the meat off the bone.

Before the dinner itself are some “Passed Smaller Bites.” These will circulate around the back garden room of the Beard House and are crucial to establishing a mood, serving as conversational ice breakers, and putting the diners in the mood for what is to follow. These are fun little things (on the menu they are called “Clever Asides”), and tonight they include bistro sliders and lobster with citrus grits, which may be the most “Sean Murphy” dish imaginable. It’s Canada meets Florida meets the South.

There’s only one problem. The staff has been looking for grits everywhere. It never occurred to Sean that grits would be hard to find in New York City. But they turn out to be nonexistent. There doesn’t seem to be a box of grits on the island of Manhattan.

Sean Murphy was born and raised in the quintessential seafaring town of Halifax, Nova Scotia. His father owned a printing company and his mother was a very bad cook. “She put everything in a great big pot and boiled the bejesus out of it,” he remembers sadly. His love of food comes from his grandmother. She took the other approach to Irish cooking—thick stews that simmer all day, fresh fish seared in a pan, homemade bread and jam.          

Sean graduated from Dalhousie Law School—the Harvard of the North—but the pull of warm weather proved too strong for him. Soon he was living in Anna Maria, Fla., a tiny beach community at the southern tip of Tampa Bay. Getting a job was complicated by his immigration status—he didn’t have one. “If you’re an illegal alien, you can pick tomatoes or cook them,” he remembers. (He became a U.S. citizen three months after 9/11.) Soon he got hired as a waiter, and in the ensuing years he worked every restaurant job there is.

But Sean quickly decided that it was time to get focused on a profit-making venture. Thus, on the weekend following Hurricane Juan back in 1985, the Beach Bistro opened in a rather nondescript time-share building that did, at least, sit right on the beach with a lovely sunset view of the Gulf.

Today the Beach Bistro has assumed an almost legendary status among Florida restaurants. It receives the highest Zagat rating in the state for both food and service, and is included in Zagat’s “Top Restaurants in America.” It’s in the Golden Spoon Hall of Fame, and has an award of excellence from Wine Spectator magazine. Accolades aside, it is probably the place to eat on the west coast of Florida.

It is an unusual hybrid, part fine dining, part beach bum hangout. From the outside it doesn’t look like much, and the interior is much smaller than you would expect. The décor is simple, comfortable and well tailored, almost like a little jewel box. During dinner there on a recent evening I studied the other diners. There was a family of four from Germany, several young couples out for a romantic dinner (one pair I recognized from the Sarasota social scene), and a group of six older retired people, very WASP-y looking, the men in khakis and sweaters and the women with subtle but expensive jewelry.

Every element of the space had been carefully thought out, taking practical concerns into account but also with an eye for making it elegant. “Everything below waist level is the color of brown gravy,” Sean pointed out, and indeed it was: the wainscoting on the walls, the carpet, the linen-looking chair covers. Above the wainscoting, the walls were all mirrored, but bright tropical paintings hung over them. The effect is lots of shiny light and reflection, but just unexpected corners and edges, never the whole picture. Careful attention is given to the sound level. Noisy, high-decibel conversation does not exist here. Everything is padded, the sound is absorbed, and the music coming out of the loudspeaker is classical piano and strings—no horns.

The lighting is crucial. The room in general has mellow, subdued lighting, but directly above each table is a tiny spotlight, shining down onto a blindingly white tablecloth. It’s high-quality halogen lighting, the kind designed to display jewelry. Under such lighting, the way the food looks is crucial—the diner is going to see every detail. So Sean and the chefs pay close attention to color.

Putting everything together is Sean’s job. He is not a chef, although he has cooked many times and can—and does—fill in at the last minute. “I produce and direct,” is how he puts it. “I could have adopted ‘chef,’ but I didn’t, out of respect to the chefs.”

He’s an old-fashioned restaurateur, a profession that in these days of chains is becoming rare. The social history of the last century is full of restaurateurs—men with big personalities who owned fashionable, expensive eateries. They didn’t cook, unlike today’s Food Network restaurateurs. What they were selling were their taste and their personality. It was a glamorous profession. Lana Turner married a restaurateur (Steve Crane), and it seemed like a match of equals.

But Sean relies on more than his personality to make the restaurant a success. He studies every aspect, every detail, trying to find a way to make it perfect. It never will be, of course, but, as he puts it, “If you strive for perfection all the time, you’ll end up very good a lot of the time.” He delights in coming up with solutions to classic restaurant problems. Kids? “Give them fruit. The minute they sit down. They’ll have something healthy to eat and it will adjust their blood sugar, which is probably pretty low because they’ve waited so long to eat. Oh, another thing that helps—give Mom a glass of wine.”

The Beach Bistro is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and these days Sean has been looking around for some new and different challenges. And he’s been finding them. Last year he entered into a deal with Bruce Cassidy Sr., the mega-rich Ohioan who bought the financially troubled Concession Golf Club just east of Lakewood Ranch. The Concession was a boom-time development that came at the wrong time, and it’s struggled in a world it was not designed for. But the food’s real good. Sean took what is essentially the Beach Bistro out to the country, and placed it in a spectacular dining room with 20-foot ceilings and two massive fireplaces, decorated by Adrienne Vittadini.

And then, just last month, he opened another Anna Maria restaurant, a fun takeoff on a hole in the wall in a strip mall. It’s called Eat Here, and Sean has taken the lessons he’s learned from the Beach Bistro and delivers the same thing here, only quicker and cheaper. Instead of lobster, it’s shrimp. There is often a wait—no reservations—and at first glance it has an almost beach shack simplicity. The menu has a lot of things you can’t wait to try—grouper cakes, smoked salmon and crème fraiche pizza, Key lime cheesecake—and most prices range from $4 to $12. It’s a big hit, and, even more remarkable, was put together in 90 days from start to finish.

The James Beard House is on a tree-shaded block in Greenwich Village, across the street from St. Vincent’s Hospital. Beard lived here for more than 30 years, as he rose from a chef and food writer to the figure that Julia Child acknowledged as the creator of the modern food movement in the United States. It was he who popularized the classic tenets of French cooking yet also championed the special tastes of American cuisine. It’s hard to believe that in today’s food-obsessed world we used to be a “meat and potatoes” society, very provincial, yet with astonishing regional variations that were unappreciated and unwritten about.

Beard changed all that. With more than 30 books to his credit, along with countless articles and recipes, he glorified all that is special about American cooking. He was a big man. (One of his chef’s uniforms, playfully embroidered with flowers, is framed on a wall, a reminder of his enormous girth—more than 300 pounds.) Guests are shown his personal shower, located out on the glass-enclosed back porch, much to the dismay of the neighbors.

Sean and his staff have been hard at work in this temple of American gastronomy since 9 a.m. Slowly, the feast is coming together. Matt Deason is in charge of the lamb, searing and roasting it so that each chop comes out just under medium. Mac de Carle is across the tiny kitchen, finishing the risotto and preparing the Bistro sliders. Poaching the lobster is the task of Pete Arpke. Sue continues her organizational work, and their son, Ben, a student at Connecticut College, arrives to join the waitstaff for the evening.

The guests start to arrive around 6:30 p.m. The weather has continued cold and blustery, but the glow of the lights through the windows, plus the aroma as you enter from the front door, provides the perfect welcome. After checking in at the desk in the front room, you proceed through the kitchen itself for a quick peek at the action and then to the glass-enclosed garden for cocktails and what the printed program calls “Passed Smaller Bites.”

The guests turn out to be a cross section of New Yorkers. Some are chicly dressed, with an artistic edge, while others look middle-class suburban. There are fewer married couples than you might expect. (This is New York City, after all, the home of the single person.) The most stylish people in the room are, oddly enough, the Sarasota contingent: younger couples from Longboat and Siesta, with a lot of disposable income.

I found myself talking to a woman, and she was the most New Yorker-like of all. She was dressed in black, of course—slacks, a loose top, plus a lot of bold ethnic jewelry. She told me she lived on the Upper West Side, had gone to Hunter College, and had a job in publishing. She also had a little bit of an attitude. You know: “If it isn’t in New York, it probably isn’t very good.”

We discussed Florida. She said she knew it well. She often traveled down to visit her elderly mother in Boynton Beach. She didn’t care for it. The humidity was awful, the people unsophisticated, the cultural life rather primitive. And the food: “All those chains and tourist traps. Ugh.”

I looked over her shoulder at Sean in the kitchen. At that moment I can’t say I envied him.

Then a waiter appeared with the first “Passed Smaller Bite.”

“What is it?” she asked.

“Butter poached lobster with sunshine citrus grits.”

Grits? Oh, dear.”

Sean found the grits, I’m thinking. Thank God. (It turned out there were four boxes left in the basement of Whole Foods in Union Square.)

“Try it,” I insisted.

Making an unhappy face, she picked up one of the little cups and swallowed it.

“Wow,” she said. “This is good.”

I looked at Sean. He was plating the first course. He didn’t know it yet, but he was about to hit a home run.

We sat down to dinner, all 85 of us (a sold-out crowd) to find Roberto’s Salad, the pale orange granita glistening. Next came the red snapper. Sean would appear on occasion between courses and tell a funny story or two, and by the time the chocolate truffle terrine arrived to mark the end of the meal—along with vanilla bean ice cream and a praline named after daughter Alexandra (who is doing quite well, by the way)—the pressure was off and he was clearly enjoying himself.

I glanced over at the real New Yorker woman, across the room. She looked blissfully satiated and contented, chatting with a couple from Longboat who were her new best friends. A lot of different worlds were meeting that night at the Beard House: Nova Scotia, Anna Maria, the New York food scene, foie gras, Maytag blue cheese, lobster, oysters and grits. It took a steady hand and a lot of imagination to pull them all together and create a meal nobody would soon forget. Sean brought the chefs up from the kitchen for a round of applause, a hug, and a high five for each. Then, after the guests filed out, full and happy, it was back to the hotel for a long celebratory meal in the restaurant. For the first time all day, Sean was finally hungry.

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