Kelly Litton didn’t exactly take a break on her fall break. She took a trip to New York and did some cooking.
At the James Beard House.
The occasion was Nathalie Dupree’s 80th Birthday Bash on Saturday night. Dupree, a four-time James Beard Award winner, was Litton’s teacher at Rich’s Cooking School in Atlanta in the 1980s. Litton has parlayed her training into making Litton’s Market, Restaurant and Bakery in Fountain City one of the most beloved eateries in town, serving 4,000 customers a week.
Along with four other colleagues and former students of Dupree, Litton prepared a meal featuring some of the legendary cooking-show host and author’s favorite dishes for a sold-out crowd of 74 (public tickets were $220). According to her Facebook page, Dupree calls her acolytes her “chickens.”
“She’s like my culinary mother,” says Litton. “That’s what I viewed her as.”
James Beard (1903-1985) was dubbed the “Dean of American Cookery” by the New York Times and was the first chef to have a cooking segment on American television. A year after his death, his home was converted to a culinary center and became home of the James Beard Foundation. Dinners held there are special occasions.
Litton had never been there before, and she said cooking in Beard’s house was the highlight of her trip.
The Knoxvillian quickly said yes when she was invited six months ago to be one of the birthday-party cooks. The rest of the team included James Beard Foundation Award winners Cynthia Graubart and Virginia Willis, both of Atlanta; Anne Byrn of Nashville; and Rebecca Lang of Athens, Ga.
Litton has fond memories of Dupree at cooking school.
“She nurtured us,” says Litton. “She was a very good teacher. She was there for us when we failed, and she was there for us when we excelled.”
Litton says Dupree’s birthday isn’t till December, but the dinner was arranged to coincide with the release of her 14th cookbook, “Nathalie Dupree’s Favorite Stories & Recipes,” which came out Oct. 1. Dupree is considered one of the greats in Southern cooking and has amassed a huge following through her television shows and books.
Litton has kept in touch with Dupree through the years and has visited her on trips to Charleston, where Dupree lives. Her former teacher has also visited her in Knoxville. Litton had previously met Graubart, who has collaborated with Dupree on cookbooks, but this was her first time meeting the other three cooks.
“Cynthia and Virginia Willis got the thing going,” says Litton. “They were responsible for putting it together, choosing the menu, etc.
“We all had different parts of the menu that we executed. I did cracklin’ cornbread that went with the salads, and then I did the fish course, which was shrimp and grits.”
The cooks got to eat as well.
“I ate everything on there (the menu),” she says. “That’s what we do as professionals – we’re professional eaters. And we have a strong finish, too. We eat the desserts.
“It was all good. It was really some swell food, I’ll tell ya.”
Speaking by phone from her home Sunday night, Litton admitted she was worn out, but it was worth it.
“I’ve eaten like a horse,” she says. “I went to New York on Wednesday, and I had a couple of days before the event” – so she ate. “You know, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” She filled up on “pastrami and pizza and (at) those fabulous bakeries they have.”
Unlike the others, Litton didn’t travel with a publicity photo in hand – she had one snapped in her hotel room. And she doesn’t have a cookbook on her resume.
“I got scolded for that this weekend,” she says. She’s finally thinking seriously about doing one, but only with the collaboration of Litton’s bakery chief, Lynda Jones.
“It would be a combined effort,” she says.
Betsy Pickle is a veteran entertainment, features and news reporter based in Knoxville.