LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
James Beard was one of the 20th century's great cooks, along with Julia Child, who elevated American home cooking. After he died in 1985, his colleagues went to work to preserve his legacy. They established the James Beard House and Foundation, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Its mission is to nurture and honor those who make America's food culture more delicious, diverse and sustainable.
Every year the foundation gives out awards to chefs, cookbook authors, TV shows - and there's a fabulous dinner at the James Beard House. Chef Digby Stridiron is from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's one of the chefs the foundation calls stars of the West Indies.
Welcome to our program.
DIGBY STRIDIRON: Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: So first, I know that you cooked at the James Beard House last year. What did you cook?
STRIDIRON: Aw, man, that was a great - it was on November 5. It was actually on the 30th anniversary. To date - I mean, we did three James Beard dinners in the Virgin Islands. The first time they came down, and we had, like, a yearly event. For the first one, we focused on West Indian ingredients. So it was like, you know, alcapurrias and things of that sort - very West Indian. You know, and at that point, it was really important to me to translate what, for me, was American cuisine - because I'm born in, you know, the United States Virgin Islands. Yet, a lot of the food that I grew up eating isn't really looked at as American food. Yet it is American, you know.
WERTHEIMER: Obviously, there's been good news and bad news out of the food industry. Famous chefs, led by Jose Andres, descended on Puerto Rico, which was so devastated by hurricanes...
WERTHEIMER: ...And basically shamed other aid institutions.
STRIDIRON: I mean, Jose is like a hero. I mean, you had a guy that's not - is from Spain. He came into Puerto Rico, you know. And all of these guys came together as a unit in a time when people needed them, and they provided support. And I feel like chefs - it's one of the things that - we cook food, you know. And it's not just about cooking food for fancy or farm to table. It's about feeding people. And it was a great reminder of what we're able to accomplish when we come together. Watching my family and friends going through that - 'cause my mom is from Puerto Rico - so to see someone stand up like that, I mean, my hat goes off to him.
WERTHEIMER: The Virgin Islands - your home islands were hit.
STRIDIRON: It was hard. I mean, I could tell you the next day after watching the footage - because I was in St. Thomas right before I made that move here with my friend. And we all stayed in the house. And the house was gone. And it was serious, and it was hard to watch.
WERTHEIMER: Did you think about going?
STRIDIRON: All the time. But I realized that I can help them more from here. So I started trying to work with other people here to get supplies sent down - tried to help some of my friends, you know. So I was trying to find ways to be there.
WERTHEIMER: The other issue I wanted to ask you about - if you think that something like the James Beard Foundation might actually get into this - is a harassment and abusive treatment of restaurant staff. We've had stories in the news about several famous chefs, including Mario Batali, who we've all watched on television. They're facing serious allegations. I mean, do you think that there is a need to sort of get organized and try to redo kitchen culture?
STRIDIRON: Yes. And I think the James Beard - I mean when it comes to - as a chef in America, the James Beard is something you look forward to every year - not just for the awards but for things they put out. So I think a boot camp or some way to start the conversation on - how do we move forward and figure out how do we make it safe for everyone?
WERTHEIMER: Now, you are soon to be the executive chef of a new restaurant in Charleston, called Parcel 32. Have you...
STRIDIRON: Yes ma'am.
WERTHEIMER: You've obviously worked very hard on what you're going to serve and how it's going to look and all those kinds of things. So what is going to be the signature dish that chef Digby Stridiron is going to serve?
STRIDIRON: Right now at Parcel - well, we plan on doing a rotating menu. Some of the best seafood I've ever had in my life is here - you know, the shrimps, the crab, the oysters. So one of the things we've done so far was called suya shrimp. It's a recipe that they have from Ghana, where they would take peanuts and spices and they would basically marinate the shrimp in that. Well, I also found a recipe in Haiti where they took peanuts and spices and made like a peanut butter and called that mamba.
So I was able to find, like, a little trail of peanuts coming all the way into Charleston. And I think those are the stories you'll find - of the ingredients that came here, how they came here. People are going to look at American cuisine just a little bit more different or what is American.
WERTHEIMER: Chef Digby Stridiron - he joined us from Charleston, S.C., where he's about to open a restaurant called Parcel 32.
STRIDIRON: Parcel 32.
STRIDIRON: Yes, ma'am.
WERTHEIMER: Thank you.
STRIDIRON: Thank you. You have a great day.
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