(Charlie Rosewood is a regular contributor to the Tradewinds Carmel Hotel Blog. Also see his post on the 2010 Pebble Beach Food & Wine event.)
To better know where you’re going, the saying goes, it helps to know where you’ve been.
That’s a particularly delicious endeavor when it comes to Pebble Beach Food & Wine.
Last year my palate and I traveled to some amazing places over the course of four sensually unforgettable days.
I learned “life savers” from the master himself, Thomas Keller, as he coached a demo crowd on some of his most useful tools at Napa’s Ad Hoc—elements prized for their invaluable versatility—like a sweet onion tapenade for use with meats like lamb or pork or even on crackers with cheese and tomatoes (or thinned with olive oil and seasoned with vinegar to be used on cruidtés, fish or chicken). Later it was Ming Tsai schooling audiences on everything from chicken ( “Kosher chicken might be $3.50 a pound instead of $2.50. It’s worth it.”) to crab cakes (“Julia Childs would say this about burgers. Pack loosely. Let the spaces fill with juices. Same with crab cakes.”)
At the breathtaking Grand Tastings, I detected two trends: 1) more sweets; and 2) a back-to-basics ethic.
On the dessert front, our own Anastasia Simpson of Spanish Bay whipped up cubical “peanut butter bar” creations whose nougat hat and smooth moussey magic paved a highway to attendee hearts. Celebrated pastry visionaries Angela Pinkerton of Eleven Madison Park and Sherry Yard of Spago conjured predictably mind-blowing sweet dreams—buttermilk sorbet and fudge cookie treats, respectively.
But it was the simple presentations that most spoke to me. One of my favorite tastes of the whole week: grilled cheese. Really. One livid lady—”Oh my God! I could make that myself! It’s pool party food!”—missed the point. You gotta be that much better to impress with an old blue collar friend than with a foie gras-foam-pâté smoothie. And Tommy Habetz and Nick Wood, chef-owners of Bunk Sandwiches in Portland, Oregon, did something extraordinary, melty, rich, delicious, comforting, dynamic, familiar and original with their grilled Tillamook vintage white extra sharp cheddar cheese and apple chutney with slow roasted pork belly. Another simply spellbinding taste also ranked among the very best all weekend. Sean O’Toole of Bardessono in Yountville deployed pata negra proscuitto on a basic slice of sourdough and whoah was it good.
Maybe five minutes after I tried that—I’m telling you, these Grand Tastings are a whirlwind— another understated dose of aha! appeared from Charles Phan of The Slanted Door in San Francisco. The star of nuanced Vietnamese cuisine gave a subtle tumeric-fish sauce marinade to some Alaskan halibut and, in his hands, it was magic.
The next day some delicious escargot with edible flowers and microgreens immaculately presented by Tyler Florence created some of the longest lines of the weekend, and spoke to one of the strengths of PBF&W: The stars themselves enthusiastically serve.
The next longest line was generated by Maine lobster flatbread pizza by Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier of Arrows Restaurant in Maine, named number 14 of the country’s top 50 by Gourmet in 2006.
This is knock-you-silly stuff—and I haven’t even mentioned the wine—as Paul Robertson, aka one-of-the better-sommeliers-on-the-planet-period (formerly of French Laundry and today one of only 127 master soms in existence), put it at a Champagne panel, “We think it should be Pebble Beach Wine & Food.”
He’s got a point. The chefs are spectacular and everpresent, but the wine is truly overwhelming. At the three-hour Grand Tastings, you could sip a nimble Storybrook Zin or test drive a Testarossa Pinot every single minute and still miss out on 80 wineries. (Not wines. Wineries, who were often pouring several tastes.)
This all bodes beautifully for 2011.
Thirteen different dinners approach epicurean absurdity—heck, the lunches are lavish all by their lonesome: Note the $200 “Don’t Mess With Texas,” pulling five of Texas’ best chefs to pair with Penfolds’ nicest wines and Pebble Beach Lodge backdrop.
This year’s $500 “Delicacy Dinner,” for instance, brings together Joachim Splichal (Patina Restaurant Group), Charlie Trotter (Charlie Trotter’s), Daniel Humm (Eleven Madison) and Gale Gand (TRU) with seven wineries like Veuve Clicquot, Hundred Acre and Rubicon.
Demos by Jacques Pepin, Tyler Florence and Tom Colicchio, who is also the focus of a special tribute “10 Years of Craft” dinner—represent sure-fire sell-outs, and the Grand Tastings remain a spectacle unparalleled west of Aspen: You can’t chew twice without stumbling over several Masaharu Morimotos, Tim Loves or Michael Symons or a tiny-production, huge-reputation winemaker. The key is to keep moving, but there are so many tastes and personalities and talents that pull you in that the key is swallowed along with the lobster cones and truffle terra cotta.
April 28 will be here before we know it: 1-866-907-FOOD or www.pebblebeachfoodandwine.com.
Please share comments below with your own memories of gustatory delights, tips for what to do while in town, or whatever comes to mind….