Photographed by Birney Imes.

A Taste for the Arts

Chefs bring their ‘A game’ to SAAC’s Forks & Corks

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Matt Garner & Birney Imes

Food may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the arts. But then, perhaps you haven’t been to Forks & Corks before. This celebration of the culinary arts is a five-star mid-summer’s eve — green terraced lawns, white tent, twinkling lights, linen-draped tables, music. And that’s just outside.

The real heart and hum of this Starkville Area Arts Council fundraiser is beyond the doors of Magnolia Manor, a renovated Greek Revival mansion near Starkville’s downtown. In its gracious rooms, local chefs and their teams meet in good-natured competition and set out to woo patrons and judges with some of the finest cuisine in the region.

“I’m a big proponent of ‘competition is a good thing,’” says The Veranda’s Chef Jay Yates, who created a recipe for fried green tomatoes topped with king crab and avocado salad, with cilantro lime hollandaise and sirachi honey aioli for the 2013 event. “Small, medium or large market, competition is good — it makes you bring your A game.”

“A games” were abundant as Paul Brasfield of Bin 612, John Fitzgerald of Restaurant Tyler, Leon Jefferson of Central Station Grill, Carnell McGee of Harveys and Barbara Vassar of Aramark joined Yates in designing outstanding specialties for the July soirée. Judges evaluated each on taste, originality and presentation. Patrons cast their votes for the Best of Forks & Corks title.

Photographed by Birney Imes.

Photographed by Birney Imes.

“Best of” bragging rights went to Chef John Fitzgerald, for his smoked catfish tamale cakes served over green tomato salsa verde and topped with house-smoked bacon confit, herb creme fraiche and Vardaman sweet potato chips.

His inspiration? Simple. “I love tamales — I grew up in Vicksburg eating tamales,” says the chef de cuisine. His crowd-pleasing version made with Mississippi farm-raised catfish and Vardaman sweet potato cornbread highlighted a philosophy more and more chefs are embracing: think local, cook local, eat local.

“The food we’re championing are the things that make Mississippi such an awesome place to eat, like our catfish, pork, tamales … ,” Fitzgerald notes. “Mississippi is really growing as far as having a food scene, if you will, and it’s community-led things like this that help.”

Even 20 years ago, being a chef was basically a service industry job, he says. The Food Network and competitive cooking shows have added a celebrity sheen and given rise to the number of cooking challenges even at the community level.

Photographed by Birney Imes.

Photographed by Birney Imes.

“Starting with ‘Iron Chef,’ it’s filtered down to every nook and cranny of the restaurant business,” remarks Yates. “From a chef’s perspective, personally I love it because it allows me to be creative and adventurous with my menus and specialties — and that’s what I love about the business.”

For Paul Brasfield, chef de cuisine at Bin 612, it’s fun to “get outside the restaurant and show people what you’re up to.” The seasonal figs in his fig ice cream with caramel and candied pecans, served over lemon sponge cake and finished with a local berry coulis, came right out of a backyard in Starkville.

“It felt so right — local fruit from Mississippi. Stay in the community with it and use what you have,” says Brasfield. And a touch of showmanship never hurts. Bin 612 earned the Presentation Award with its burlap-and-sunflowers display evoking summer in the South.

Taste and Originality Awards went to Chef Leon Jefferson and his team from Central Station Grill for brisket-wrapped sea scallops with potato Florentine, with a balsamic-infused white barbecue sauce.

“People don’t give brisket enough love; I wanted to show it to be the great piece of meat that it is,” says Jefferson. Like the others, he enjoys the creative sport inherent in a food challenge. “We try to get one-percent better every day, and events like this keep the creative juices flowing.”

Photographed by Matt Garner.

Photographed by Matt Garner.

Some of the specialties even make their way onto restaurant menus, like Harveys Chef Carnell McGee’s Mississippi Gulf seafood and Low Country cheese grits.

Ellen Boles is president of the Starkville Area Arts Council. “We really do appreciate the chefs’ willingness to participate. They’re very enthusiastic about it and always come up with delights that aren’t on the menus. It’s wonderful to taste new things.”

The chefs’ culinary passion — combined with a fine selection of wines, live auction and an ambiance of casual elegance — make Forks & Corks a must-do for anyone who appreciates good food and good causes. The 2014 Starkville Area Arts Council event is set for July 26. 

In the words of Chef Jefferson, “It’s good to get out and mingle in the community and show people that we care — to kind of give love back.”


SMOKED CATFISH TAMALE CAKES 

Makes about 40 2-3 ounce cakes

8 cups sweet potato cornbread, cooked and finely crumbled
4 cups smoked catfish, shredded
1 medium red onion, finely chopped and sweated
½ cup roasted tomatillo pepper, puréed
1 cup pork fat
2 eggs
1 cup panko bread crumbs
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon crushed black pepper
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper

• Catfish should be smoked using hickory or apple wood chips at no higher than 160 degrees for roughly four hours or until done throughout.
• Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl by slowly folding together. Do not over-agitate by using a mixer or mashing with your hands.
• Pablano or Anaheim peppers provide a nice substitute if tomatillo peppers are unavailable.
• Portion mixture out into two- to three-ounce cakes and lightly sear each side in a pan with vegetable oil. Remove from pan and place in the oven at 350 degrees for five minutes to cook through.

(Source: Chef John Fitzgerald, Restaurant Tyler, Best of Forks & Corks, 2013)