DINE: Parallel 38 Cooks at the James Beard House

By Steve Russell / Photography By Meredith Coe | September 15, 2014
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james beard house
Malinis (center) with sous chefs Paul Miller (left) and Zac Shupe at the James Beard House.

IT’S A THURSDAY EVENING DINNER service at Parallel 38 in Charlottesville, and while hungry locals compare the menus of restaurants that surround the neighboring movie theater in the Shops at Stonefield, this dining room is filling up and orders are beginning to stream into the kitchen at a brisker pace. Amid the glint of knives and sizzle of the grill, executive chef Alfredo Malinis Jr. is in the zone.

His focus is impressive considering that in just four days, he and owner-slash-sommelier Justin Ross will travel to Manhattan to present a multi-course meal at the invitation of the James Beard Foundation, an organization that each year awards the culinary equivalent of the Oscars. For a restaurant that opened less than a year ago and is still establishing its identity in the competitive Charlottesville dining scene, the coveted invitation isn’t just an honor, it’s a major opportunity.

parallel 38
Malinis puts a final touch on a course of rock hen.

The restaurant’s concept celebrates the fact that the 38th parallel north of the equator passes through some of the globe’s most renowned food and wine regions, including Spain, southern Italy, Greece’s Ionian islands, Napa Valley, and yes, little ol’ Charlottesville. The menu leans toward that lucky latitude’s Mediterranean span, exhibited in small plates of olives, artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, lamb, pork, and seafood.

“Sometimes a new customer will be upset that we don’t have a burger or a Caesar salad on the menu,” says Malinis. “Look, there are plenty of places in town that make a great burger. Not everyone has to serve comfort food. Parallel 38 can be something a little different.”

But will he need to raise the bar even higher to impress dozens of jaded foodies in New York City? “We don’t want to serve a meal that’s too much of a departure from what we do here,” Malinis says. “That said, cooking at the James Beard House is a rare occasion, so we’ll tweak dishes with a luxury ingredient or two.” For instance, while roasted rock hen is a menu staple at the restaurant, it will be elevated a notch at the James Beard dinner with foie gras butter and sumac spice.

parallel 38

Malinis is not one of those reality-TV chef caricatures who bellows at his crew’s every slice and dice. Indeed, his calm supervision makes it possible for Parallel 38 to feature an airy kitchen that’s visible to diners through a large open window. Still, he’s every bit a perfectionist, and even with a dozen orders now in the works, when a dish of spicy caramelized scallops is passed to him to garnish, he quietly instructs a sous chef to cook a replacement scallop that isn’t quite so browned.

To hopefully avoid even such slight hitches at the James Beard House, Malinis and crew have conducted six mock runs of prepping, cooking, and plating the entire menu, fine-tuning the skills required to produce 74 flawless portions of eight separate courses. Regardless, he admits that the event sticks in his thoughts as it draws near. “We’ve prepared all we can,” he says. “But I’m not trying to fool anyone. This is a bright spotlight, and we’ve got to get it right.”

There’s no other way to say it. The kitchen inside the James Beard House, one of the most vital landmarks on the culinary map of America, is…tiny. Th ere’s good reason for this—the foundation’s physical home is the former townhouse residence of the late cookbook author himself (see sidebar), and therefore is scaled toward the tight living quarters of Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood.

parallel 38
parallel 38
Photo 1: A busy stove.
Photo 2: Keftedes and pork belly are prepped.

It’s Monday, August 18, exactly one hour before the sold-out dinner officially begins. The kitchen is busy, though not frantic. Working elbow to elbow with Malinis are two sous chefs from Parallel 38, Paul Miller and Zac Shupe, and a couple of ringers called in for the occasion, Joel Gargano, who used to work with Malinis in Connecticut, and Gargano’s own sous chef, Carlos Quirama. Eggplant is being fried, custard whipped, meatballs portioned, and rock hens basted on the range top—the last of which is filling the space with fragrant smoke because the range vent doesn’t appear to be working. “This thing sucks,” complains one of the guys. “Actually, I guess it doesn’t.”

Two clever strategies have been employed to coax an ambitious menu from the cramped kitchen. First, some elements of tonight’s plates were prepped in Charlottesville or earlier today in this kitchen, including the ceviche marinade, herb puree, and foie gras butter, which has been loaded into pastry bags. Second, the crew is conducting much of its chopping, seasoning, and other prep work atop large baking trays that can be relocated to racks at a moment’s notice, instead of dominating precious space on the L-shaped counter.

The James Beard House provides an experienced waitstaff , and at 6:16 p.m., Malinis gives them a rundown of the menu, pausing to explain a few items, including fish rillettes. “Rillettes are typically made with pork or duck or something with a high fat content,” he says. “Bronzino doesn’t have much fat, so we mitigate that by pulsing it with an absurd amount of butter. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like butter, so that’s a good thing.”

After the meeting, Malinis eyes the clock while slicing a couple hundred pieces of cured pork belly destined for an appetizer. “We gotta start pushing,” he declares. “But make sure you guys stay hydrated.” This advice may be more commonly offered on a football field, but no one questions it—they know tonight is going to be a workout.

Guests are arriving. To reach the patio for cocktail hour, they pass through the kitchen, often forcing the chefs working in their path to temporarily shove aside. When Clay and Linda Trainum of Augusta County’s Autumn Olive Farms appear, Malinis mock-announces to his crew, “I don’t know where you guys got this pork, but it’s good.” Clay just grins as he passes, but Linda shoots back, “It’s from some old farmer who lets his pigs run around in the woods!”

Autumn Olive Farms is a major contributor to tonight’s menu, with its heritage-breed Ossabaw pork going into three dishes and Boer Bok goat meat making an appearance too. Justifiably proud, the Trainums chose to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary by making their first-ever trek to New York City to attend the dinner. Other Central Virginia ingredients that made the trip include microgreens from Planet Earth Diversified and heirloom tomatoes from Whisper Hill Farm.

parallel 38 owner Justin Ross
parallel 38
Photo 1: Parallel 38 owner Justin Ross (front) helps get the crowd ready for dinner.
Photo 2: A Persian Collins.

Out on the patio, Ross and Parallel 38 manager Jesse Fellows are plying guests with dry white wine from Spain’s Basque Country and refreshing Persian Collinses, concocted of gin, cucumber, lime, and sekanjabin, a mint-vinegar syrup of Middle Eastern origin. The crowd is a mix of Foundation members in linen sport coats, young professionals in cocktail dresses, and hipster foodies flaunting lumberjack beards. Also making the rounds are Ross’ two partners in the restaurant, Steve Pritchard and Cara Ward. Most conversations center on food, especially when the kitchen starts issuing plate after plate of this evening’s three appetizers: crispy pork belly dressed with baharat-spiced jam; lamb and goat keftedes (Greek meatballs) with puttanesca and lemon verbena; and walnut hummus. It’s hard to say if there’s a favorite, but several people can be spotted clutching a fistful of naked keftedes skewers.

By 7:30 p.m., the kitchen crew is discussing logistics of entree preparation while still plating appetizer reinforcements. Malinis cracks open a Monster energy drink and declares that he consumes so much of it that the company should give him some for free. “Did you catch my sense of entitlement there?” he asks cheerfully.

“Every day, chef,” one of the crew deadpans. A few minutes later, guests are finding their tables and the house manager sticks his head into the kitchen to announce that dinner service can begin—effectively delivering 74 rush tickets all at once.

“Fire the fish,” Malinis says. The first dinner course showcases the bronzino: an artful scoop of rillettes, plus a piece of the delicate white fish poached in oil, accompanied by labneh yogurt and pita. There isn’t enough space on the counter to accommodate 74 plates, so the elements have to come together in waves. “Let’s pick it up, guys!” Malinis urges, and as the final plates of bronzino leave the kitchen 20 minutes later, fresh plates for the second course, rock shrimp ceviche, are stacked three high in their place. Malinis immediately starts spooning dollops of avocado foam onto each plate, then shows Miller and Gargano exactly how he wants the shrimp and squid to be positioned. He’s setting the pace and expects the others to match him.

parallel 38
rock shrimp ceviche
ossabaw tenderloin
dessert at parallel 38
Photo 1: The prep counter loaded with bronzino rillettes.
Photo 2: Rock shrimp ceviche in progress.
Photo 3: Ossabaw tenderloin shares a plate with an eggplant crisp and whipped chèvre.
Photo 4: Dessert comes together one delicious element at a time.

Even now, there are several onlookers wedged into the kitchen, snapping photos that are likely being Instagrammed as proof of their attendance. And that’s when the deep fryer decides to…stop frying. While the house staff diagnoses the problem, Quirama barely misses a beat and transfers oil and squid tentacles to a pan on the stovetop. Just 13 minutes after the first entree course left the kitchen, the beautifully composed ceviche plates follow. Even at this speed, though, Malinis has the focus to halt a server to replace an unsatisfactory watercress on the last plate to leave the kitchen.

Upstairs in the main dining room (formerly the library), nine tightly seated tables are enjoying every intensely flavorful bite. It’s a boisterous crowd, freely discussing the menu and presentation. Full wine glasses help, with Ross pausing tableside to describe his pairing choice for each course—for instance, the underlying creaminess of the Esporao Reserva (a Portuguese white) complements the rillettes and labneh yogurt. This is second-nature for Ross, who began his restaurant experience in kitchens in Maryland and D.C., but followed his passion to become an advanced sommelier.

When the third entree course arrives, the Trainums are suddenly the stars of the show. A few urbane diners are visibly awed that the people who raised these peerless pork medallions could be sitting with them—and that this particular 300-pound specimen had been on their farm less than a week ago. Someone asks if the hog had a name. “I try not to name them,” says Linda, “but sometimes their personalities just come out and you can’t help it.” Clay proceeds to give the table a tutorial on the nutritional benefits of pork raised outdoors, and because this is the James Beard House, everyone is rapt. By the time he shows off a cell phone photo of fresh sweet corn wrapped in slices of homemade lardo, minds have officially been blown.

Back in the kitchen, the last plate of Ossabaw goes out the same as the first, with eight distinct components—pork, an eggplant crisp, cherry tomatoes, a sliced fig, whipped chèvre with harissa spice, basil, pomegranate vinaigrette with shallot, pomegranate seeds— obsessively arranged into edible art.

For the rock hen course, Miller seizes a pastry bag and starts squeezing three dollops of foie gras butter onto each plate. His haste is soon understood, as the dish’s remaining components—a smear of sumac onion soubise, herb puree, radish, spiced chickpeas, and the roasted hen—arrive on the plates just moments before he can complete his task. It’s a fragrant, exciting course that reawakens the senses of any guests who may have been growing satiated from the preceding three hours.

If this were a restaurant, now is the point at which you’d brandish a fork against a waiter who dares to present a dessert menu. But that course is part of the experience here, and worth the surreptitious loosening of belts. How do saffron ice cream, pistachio cake, chocolate olive crunch, almond florentine, and candied orange zest taste together in one mouthful? Pretty damn complex, but as Malinis himself says, it’s “a lot of salt and a lot of sweet.” So, really good.

The clinking of spoons is replaced by loud applause (and a few catcalls) when Malinis leads his crew into the dining room. They look tired but exhilarated, like they just ran a marathon— and won.

parallel 38
parallel 38
Photo 1: Malinis and crew meet their fans.
Photo 2: A menu for the scrapbook.

“I’ve been cooking for 18 years, and this is the height of my career,” Malinis says in closing. “And what we are doing at Parallel 38 is allowing us to reach this level.”

With that, much of the crowd waddles toward taxis, subways, and bed. No doubt the Parallel 38 crew is even wearier, but tonight they have conquered New York City and will celebrate into the wee hours. Tomorrow, they will set their sights once again on conquering Charlottesville.


 

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