A few weeks ago, my wife Barbara and I returned to the remarkable Relais & Château GourmetFest in Carmel by the Sea. This was the sixth annual celebration of GourmetFest under the direction and planning of our good friend and host extraordinaire, David Fink.
David is the founder and CEO of Mirabel Hotel & Restaurant Group that includes L’Auberge Carmel and serves as a Relais & Château board member. Long before his launch of GourmetFest in 2014, David created and presided over the heralded Masters of Food and Wine at the Highlands Inn in Carmel where he was also the general manager for more than 15 years.
Throughout his successful career in hospitality, wine and food, David has cultivated a worldwide circle of friends and colleagues. At GourmetFest, they step forward to demonstrate and share their talents with a host of enthusiastic fans during themed events including tastings, wine-paired meals, cooking demonstrations, a mushroom hunt and more each day.
This year, we decided to kick off our GourmetFest experience by attending the lavish Welcome Party where the talents of winemakers from around the world blend effortlessly with those of Relais & Château chefs from near and far. Among the many chefs participating were Graham Gaspard of Black River Caviar, Justin Cogley of Aubergine at L’Auberge Carmel, Walter Manzke of République, Michael Mina of Mina Restaurant Group and Adriano Venturini of Eden Roc Cap Cana.
Just a few of the wineries pouring were Château Lafite Rothschild, Champagne Taittinger, DuMOL, Morlet, Opus One, Catena Zapata, Pisoni and Lingua Franca. In all, the reception featured more than a dozen chefs and culinary leaders preparing their dishes next to 40 highly respected and well known wineries. And many of the wineries and chefs would repeat their appearances and display their talents in one or more of the highly focused events that followed over the next three days.
On Day 2, after a picturesque walk along the sea, we took advantage of the Ment’or Cooking Demonstration and Lunch. Ment’or is a leading non-profit organization created by Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and Jérôme Bocuse, “to inspire young people to want to cook.” The entertaining, educational and interactive hands-on cooking class was lead by Michelin-starred chef Michael Mina and his executive chef, Raj Dixit.
Together, they led us on a most interesting presentation while explaining how everything they do in their kitchen can be replicated in ours with the understanding that every dish should represent a balance of Michael’s four keys to culinary creation and preparation. Throughout his presentation, Michael stressed and demonstrated that for a dish to succeed in the restaurant or at home, it must represent a balance between spice, sweetness, acidity and richness.
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This simple concept draws direct similarities to my understanding and appreciation of the necessary balance exhibited in all great wines. Here, we appreciate the roles of acidity, fruit, tannin and alcohol melding into a seamless, harmonious expression where none dominates the other.
After Michael’s thought-provoking and palate-whetting demonstration, we moved to a reception and were treated to 2013 Champagne Taittinger Millésimé alongside a sumptuous selection of hors d’oeuvres. Each of the delectable dishes served at lunch was prepared by a different chef and featured the perfect wine pairing introduced by the vintner/winemaker.
Our first course was a Michael Mina sensation of sea scallop artfully plated with mint kataifi, serrano chili and citrus paired with 2017 Paul Lato Sauvignon Blanc “Le Jardin Secret” from Santa Barbara’s “warmer” Happy Valley. This wine is crafted from only selected lots fermented in concrete eggs and aged in neutral oak to enhance its rich, but delicate, mouthfeel. An insightful pairing featuring both a perfect taste and textural match.
The next extraordinary dish of morels, peas, spring onion, Madeira and bacon by Loric Leperlier of The Point in New York State was paired with 2016 Cattleya Pinot Noir “Cuvée Number One” from the Green Valley area of the Russian River Valley. Only four barrels (less than100 cases) were made and it worked perfectly both as a foil and complement to the sweetness and earthiness of the dish.
Chef Mark Lundgaard from Michelin-starred Restaurant Kong Hans Kǣlder in Copenhagen presented a venison turte (tartare) that paired exquisitely with 2012 Bibi Graetz “Colore” from Tuscany. A most interesting wine that is a blend of Sangiovese, Colorino (considered by many as the Petit Verdot of Italy) and Canailo. The vines ranged from 90 to 120 years old and only four barrels were produced. A charming wine showing its Tuscan roots coupled with an engaging floral spice accent on both the nose and palate.
Our culinary adventure concluded with a masterful presentation of a mousse-like confection of chocolate, coffee and rye prepared by French Laundry trained pastry chef Ron Mendoza of Ad Astra Bread Co. This dessert was a perfect expression of texture, flavor and a WOW factor that’s hard to define. A perfect finishing touch to end a superb dining experience!
Attending GourmetFest is always an opportunity to partake in an enthusiastic camaraderie between chefs, winemakers, guests and a passionate host enhancing the beautifully prepared and presented wine/food pairings as they too bring out the best in each other.