Twenty-five chefs creating gourmet feasts. 70 cases of Champagne poured. 10 kilos of caviar consumed. All in four days. I can't resist. As cliché as it is, the "Champagne wishes and caviar dreams" tagline made popular by Robin Leach's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, just feels like the perfect way to sum up the experience at GourmetFest.
For a first time event, GourmetFest went off seemingly without a hitch during its inaugural weekend in Carmel-by-the-Sea. The weather cooperated beautifully, and Carmel was easy to navigate, not just by foot, but thanks to shuttle service provided by event organizers.
You can tell this isn't the first rodeo for David Fink, Mirabel Hotel & Restaurant Group CEO and organizer of GourmetFest. He was part of the team that started the Masters of Food and Wine event at the Carmel Highlands Inn, a few miles south down the coast from Carmel. That event ended in 2007 after a 20-year run.
Fink is a member of the board of directors of Relais & Chateaux, a hospitality group that Fink's Carmel hotel and restaurant property L'Auberge Carmel belongs to. For years he's been asked to bring back the Masters. He'd visit chefs and winemakers in Europe -- it was an international event -- and they all still had great memories of the event. "You've got to do another one," Fink says they'd tell him. "I had no idea it still had that much legs. Finally I caved in and said well if Relais will be my partner we can do it."
This year just happens to be the 60th anniversary of Relais & Chateaux; a great excuse to throw a big birthday bash.
Fink wanted to bring back the intimacy and luxury of the Masters event, with international chefs and wineries that are legends, but add an element of showing off the tremendous local food and wine purveyors in and around Carmel.
$600 Bottles of Wine and Free-flowing Champagne
The first event was just a taste, but what a taste. The Welcome Party on Thursday night, under a big white tent, paired Grand Chefs from Relais & Chateaux properties and bites they prepared from organic farms with world-class wines. We're talking Krug Champagne paired with Black River caviar on a potato chip.
Smoked salmon with coriander, nettles and rhubarb from Jason Franey at Canlis in Seattle was divine with Chardonnay from HdV in Carneros.
Joachim Splichal from Patina in Los Angeles paired spit roasted baby lamb, creamy polenta and pickled ramps with Cheval Blanc (the $600 wine) , which for me was the best food wine match of the night.
Champagne and Caviar for Breakfast
The next day began with a decadent start -- caviar and Champagne. Chef Johann Lafer created three dishes, basically all vehicles for caviar, in a morning cooking demo. He made blini, a potato and creme fraiche dished topped with a huge dollops of caviar.
Loup de mer (sea bass), was topped with a thick layer of caviar. The fish was soft and delicious, oven roasted in an olive oil bath -- thinking poaching but done in the oven at a very low temperature.
The most interesting part of this demo (besides the caviar of course) is how many cameras were documenting chef's every move. Oh, he's stirring lemon into the sour cream. Look there, he's doing julienne cuts of Jerusalem artichoke. When Chef Lafer took the plates around for closer inspection by us it was like a media frenzy, only these were regular folks snapping photos, a sign of how food-obsessed we've become.
From there, we went on to Caviar and Champagne 101, a tasting put on by Black River Caviar and Ruinart. Black River Caviar is produced in Uruguay at a sturgeon hatchery that's the first sturgeon farm in the southern hemisphere. Located on the Rio Negro, they have clean water channeled by gravity flow through the farm where they produce Siberian and Russian Oscietra caviars.
For the tasting we had four caviars, one from paddlefish, one from a California producer and then Black River's Siberian and Oscietra (the same caviars Chef Lafer used in his cooking demo). I don't think I've ever had as much caviar in my entire life as I had during these sessions. Can you ever have too much caviar?
What to look for, taste for when having caviar? First, when you open the tin, the eggs should be shiny and clearly separate. If the caviar looks muddy it's probably old or compromised temperature-wise (caviar should always be kept chilled). If you see salt or membrane or worse blood, take or send it back to where you bought it. Caviar should have a clean, slight ocean aroma. You don't want fishy aromas. As far as taste, you get that salty, ocean flavor, but it should be crisp and clean and not muddled. We found the Siberian caviar more creamy and the Oscietra more of the ocean.
As for the Champagne paired with the caviar, Runiart is the oldest producer in Champagne, dating to 1729. The flagship of the house is the NV Blanc de Blancs, made from 100 percent Chardonnay from Premier Cru vineyards. The crisp citrus and texture of the bubbles works so well with the caviar.
Even better was the 2002 Dom Ruinart, the house's top of the line, or tete de cuvee, which is produced only in the best years. Ruinart ages its vintage Champages at least 10 years and the grapes come from Grand Cru vineyards. The 2002 is marvelous with lively acidity and toasty notes with hazelnut. This is one of the best Champagnes I've ever had.
We also learned that Champagne flutes are becoming passé. We sipped our bubbly out of regular wine glasses, which help you smell more of the aromas, even if you do get slightly less bubbles.
An Italian Feast
A pasta cooking demo with Michael White, chef of Marea in New York City, gave us a preview of the dish he was making for lunch, cicatelli with local seafood. Then it was on to the Taste of Italy lunch, where wines from Ceretto were paired with a four course meal. Other well-known Italian chefs joined David White on the menu, including Michael Tusk of Quince and Gaetano Trovato of Anolfo. I'd just visited Ceretto in June and it was fun to enjoy their wines again, including their Arneis, Barolo Zonchera and Moscato d'Asti.
Camaraderie Through Food and Wine
At this point, I had to depart, having another commitment that weekend. But the rest of the events were showstoppers, I'm sure. I would have loved to have gone on the wild mushroom hunt, sat in on the tasting of the Richebourg wines with Domaine de la Romanée-Conti's Aubert de Villaine or enjoyed the Grand Chef dinner with all the participating Grand Chefs at GourmetFest.
"It's all about camaraderie, building bridges between the guests and the chefs and wine estates," says Fink. "The chefs and winemakers had a glass of wine or a plate of food with someone they didn't know. I want people to take away that this is fun." More than 2,000 guests attended the 15 events over four days, with 11 of the 15 selling out. Fink is already working on next year's program "with a new cast." If he can pull of a pretty darn good event in seven months, I can't wait to see what he does with a whole year to plan.