Adam Hegsted, executive chef at the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort in Worley, is not in the kitchen. He’s out on the golf course.
Drivers of the passing golf carts eye the chef, dressed in his black jacket, with a mix of confusion and amusement. He’s not carrying clubs. Instead, he’s got a plastic bag in one gloved hand. A reporter and photographer trail behind.
He points out the various edibles as we walk – wild mustard, Oregon grape, cattails – but he has something else in mind. He scans the edge of a wooden trestle that carries golfers across the creek and between holes at the resort’s Circling Raven golf course. Then he jumps down into a deep tangle of brush to begin gathering the tender leaves of a plant in the wetlands below – stinging nettles.
For most, nettles are a plant to avoid. They leave a red, welty rash on the bare skin of unsuspecting hikers. For Hegsted, the herb provides a complexity to a dish that helps define this area’s cuisine and connects diners with the edible gifts of the region. He uses it sometimes in special dishes featured at restaurants at Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort or in food he serves at his Wandering Table – a moveable feast that he hosts at surprise locations during his time off from the casino.
He’ll serve nettles again on June 2 when he cooks at the James Beard House in New York City. Two other area chefs have cooked at the esteemed venue, including Rod Jessick, executive chef at the Coeur d’Alene Resort, who has been there twice and Brian Hutchins, chef at Stix in Spokane, who went in 2003.
“Every famous chef you’ve ever heard of has cooked at the James Beard House,” Hegsted told guests during a recent dinner at the resort’s Ts’elusm Steakhouse to practice the menu he has planned for New York.
It can be hard to impress people with the honor of an invitation from the James Beard Foundation in this area, he said. Most people outside of chef and epicurean circles don’t know a great deal about James Beard and his legacy. The distinction is somewhat removed from the kind of cooking that Hegsted and his team of chefs are doing most of the time at the casino.
The James Beard Foundation is a nonprofit culinary arts organization based in the former Greenwich Village townhouse of the celebrated food writer, teacher and cookbook author. Known as the “Dean of American Cookery,” his namesake foundation hopes to “celebrate, preserve, and nurture America’s culinary heritage and future.”
Hegsted said he hopes his invitation represents something more than a personal accolade – he views it as a chance to show others what chefs in this area are capable of doing. It’s a sign that Eastern Washington and Idaho are starting to deserve notice for what is happening in the area’s developing culinary scene.
Everything on the menu Hegsted will present at the James Beard House is designed to highlight the Inland Northwest: Columbia River sturgeon, morel mushrooms, thimbleberries, steelhead trout and huckleberries. The dinner includes a centerpiece filled with rocks gathered from the shores of Lake Coeur d’Alene, along with native plants. During the meal, he pours liquid nitrogen over the rocks to give diners a full experience of the area.
“I look at it as an opportunity to show the people in New York what we can do here and give them a taste of the foods from this area,” Hegsted said.
Since early in his career, the chef has been on something of a quest to create the kind of culinary scene found in larger cities – Portland, Seattle and beyond. One where both restaurant owners and diners alike celebrate innovative cuisine. One with the kind of opportunities that have stolen talent from the Inland Northwest for so long, as his colleagues outgrew Spokane-area kitchens and moved.
When he’s not working more than 40 hours each week overseeing the restaurants at the casino, he’s hosting the Wandering Table, www.thewandering table.com, or blogging about Inland Northwest food at the Insatiable Food Machine, www.theinsatiable foodmachine.com.
Hegsted, who studied at both the Inland Northwest Culinary Academy in Spokane and the Art Institute of Seattle, first started dreaming about the James Beard House with his friends and instructors at the culinary college. They vowed, even then, that if any one of them was ever invited to New York, they would all go together.
They’re staying true to that pact. Among the crew traveling with Hegsted to New York to make the James Beard dinner are his brother Ryan Stoy, executive chef of Downriver Grill in Spokane; Inland Northwest Culinary Academy chef/instructor Pete Tobin; Matt Mayer and Molly Patrick, sous chefs at the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort; Viljo Basso from Syringa in Coeur d’Alene; and Moe Breiter, a chef in Bellingham, Wash. Deborah Di Bernardo, of Spokane’s Roast House Coffee, has been collaborating with Hegsted and Stoy for the past two years to provide and serve coffee for the Wandering Table dinners, and she will be going along with the crew as well.
It’s not as glamorous as it sounds.
Since the James Beard Foundation is a nonprofit organization, the honor is only an invitation. Chefs pay their own way to New York, for the ingredients it takes to serve a dinner for 80 and all the rest. Hegsted admits the eight people on the team will be sharing three hotel rooms.
Hegsted has found sponsorships to help with the cost of food. They plan to ship everything via Fed Ex so they have the ingredients they need – including those stinging nettles he forages from around the casino and golf course.
Among those helping with costs are the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort, a student group at Inland Northwest Culinary Academy, the American Culinary Federation Chefs de Cuisine of the Inland Northwest, Paul Fish of Mountain Gear and even Di Bernado’s big brother Russell. Pacific Seafood, Ste. Michelle Vintners, Abeja, Spring Valley Vineyard, Boudreaux Cellars, Quillisascut Cheese Company, Long Shadows Wineries, Snake River Farms and Food Services of America all donated food or wine.
Lora Lea Misterly of Quillisascut said she and her husband, Rick, first met Hegsted when he was working at Brix in Coeur d’Alene. He wanted to use the cheese from their small farm in Rice, Wash., on the menu, but it meant driving to Spokane to pick up the cheeses. She was impressed by his commitment.
It was while Hegsted was working there that he started to earn a reputation for his use of local products and his ability to combine food flavors and textures in surprising ways. That was also when he first applied to the James Beard House.
“I love what he brings to his food – a sense of playfulness, a love of pulling together flavors and surprises. Adam appears to have a fever for the process of cooking and learning continuously about the world of food,” Misterly said. “He honors his ingredients and does not turn them into a muddle on the plate. And best of all for us eaters, he seems to take total delight in making us happy with fun, folly and fabulous meals.”
Misterly added: “Anyone who is lucky enough to get a seat at a Wandering Table dinner will know what a dining experience can be: It is more than just a meal; it is an experiential art form that fills up all of our senses.”