My initiation to the fabulous culinary festival known as the Masters of Food and Wine came not as a customer but in a more interesting and challenging behind-the-scenes role. I was invited to be a Guest Sommelier, joining the team of top wine directors and sommeliers assembled from the countrys best restaurants to assist with wine service for this premier event.
On Wednesday, I arrived promptly at 9am for orientation to be hired on as a temporary employee (at minimum wage of $6.75 + tips) of Highlands Inn Park Hyatt Carmel. I dutifully read the employee policies and signed all the required paperwork, yet did wonder how I could comply with Hyatts no alcohol consumption on duty policy and still carry out my job responsibilities. (vbg) I was impressed by the caramel-pecan sticky bun (good-looking croissants, muffins and other breakfast pastries were also offered), some of the sweetest and juiciest pineapple Ive ever had, melon slices, fresh OJ and grapefruit juice, and good strong coffee on the buffet for the new crew. Ill bet that breakfast is really good here.
We had a quick tour of the three event venues, including the newly remodeled Pacifics Edge restaurant that re-opened just two days earlier. The new wine room displays the bottles handsomely and the spots for viewing the Pacific coastline show off the breathtaking scenery even better than before. A lift has been installed and aisles widened in the multi-level dining and new bar area to be completely wheel chair accessible. I also walked through the kitchen where it seemed like dozens of chefs and assistants were madly prepping for lunch and the evening reception. I was fascinated by one cook devoted to laboriously cutting ever so thin, see-through slices of potato on a mandolin next to a small tray of completed fried chips and a bigger tray of rejects.
Hiking back up the Groves conference room for our first work assignment, I got my first inkling of the logistics planning and hand labor required to pull off a top-flight wine event like this. There was a mountain of Spiegelau white wine glasses (the official crystal) to be unboxed, de-stickered, cleaned in the dishwasher, triple-rinsed with hot water, hand-dried, inspected for defects, and buffed. Ten of us spent nearly three hours getting 800 glasses ready for the next days tasting. Some 2,000 lead crystal wine glasses would be washed, polished, and shuttled in rotation among tasting sessions, lunch and dinner venues many times. The hotel crew loaned us a golf cart for this task, designated with a sign reading: Wine Team Vino Bus: Dont Drink and Drive.
We broke for lunch at 2:00pm in the employee cafeteria. This days staff lunch included sandwich fixings of turkey breast cold cuts, tuna salad and American cheese with assorted sliced breads, chopped romaine and Caesar dressing to make salad, and hot dishes of Swedish meatballs, confetti rice, and corn niblets.
Back at it, my next task was readying more glassware, this time nearly 1,000 Spiegelau glasses engraved with the event logo for the opening night reception. By now I was an expert in the various grades of cotton linens used by the Inn and found that the Italian all cotton napkins by Fretta were the most lint-free. Even so, by the end of the day, my black knit silk top was covered in white lint from the glass-polishing task.
Showtime was 6:00pm with the arrival of the first guests and opening of the gate. I emerged from the backroom to find the fireside gallery and restaurant transformed into a Winter Wonderland of twinkling lights and snowy accents with more atmosphere added by the jazz trio. Also, Hiro Sones station was on fire! But the Inns top- notch restaurants team put it out and aired the room without missing a beat. The evening wine crew would now take over. I was happy to be off the clock and have the chance to try some wines and the offerings of some of the countrys top chefs.
The wine stations were manned by winery principals assisted by a wine steward. Instead of ice buckets, blocks of ice had been hollowed out to created space to chill a bottle and carved decoratively as a very special touch. Favorite wines of the night included:
1990 Faiveley Echezeaux Grand Cru barely middle-aged in maturity with many years ahead
1998 Chateau Margaux showing some rougher edges reflecting the vintage than typical for the property, yet attractive in its development and drinking quite nicely now
2001 Tablas Creek Espirit de Beaucastel rouge gorgeous in its youth and deserving of the name with oodles of complexity and breed
1999 Quintessa multi-dimensional and expansive with layers of flavor
2001 Copain Eaglepoint Syrah lovely balance with lush plummy fruit and floral accents
The small plates sampled included offerings from:
R. KENT TORREY, The Cheese Shop, Carmel, CA
Among a beautiful display of artisanal cheeses, the Vacherin Mont dOr was the best example Ive had in the States. Id heard of the reputation of this purveyor and this single taste of perfectly ripened cheese confirmed it. I had to resist the urge to try every thing else to save room for the other stations, and I was grateful that Id be working the cheese tasting the next day.
MICHAEL GINOR, Hudson Valley Foie Gras, Great Neck, NY
Truffled foie gras flan with fig glaze Wow! What a sensual mouthful, an ethereal and almost airy texture that conveyed so much richness of flavor without heaviness.
Potato and duck prosciutto sandwich A thin slice of cured duck breast between two large slices of russet potato then deep-fried to golden brown, but, unfortunately, not crisp and the duck was stringy and hard to bite through.
Tournedos Rossini on brioche Another winner with an expertly grilled round of brioche stacked with a slice of blood rare filet, beautifully seared crusty-creamy foie, a big shaving of fresh black truffle, and a finely turned demi-glace. Great execution of a classic, and a fine match with Peter Michaels Les Pavots.
SUZANNE TRACHT, Jar, Los Angeles, CA
Oyster stew with Chinese celery and leeks Neither comforting nor exciting, the small oysters were done to a turn but were underseasoned.
Lobster cocktail Several pieces of sweet lobster were adorned with julienne of apple and other veggies, but lacked unity of disparate parts.
BOBBY FLAY, Mesa Grill and Bolo, NY, NY
Three tastes of oyster Only had time to try two and both were fantastic. First a corn-meal dusted fried oyster topped with a garlicky roasted jalapeño and cilantro pesto; then even better, a fried oyster sauced with a habañero-infused emulsion that packed heat and complex flavor and topped with osetra caviar. The grassy and greenish 2001 Araujo Sauvignon Blanc was the perfect chaser for these chili-flavored bivalves.
MICHELLE BERNSTEIN, Azul, Miami, FL
Taylor Bay scallops Sweet and succulent scallop served on the shell with a creamy indistinct sauce.
Seared foie gras and unagi Impressive presentation with a base of unagi topped with an upright triangular piece of foie wrapped with nori and squirted with too sweet soy-ish glaze. But, no longer warm and with soggy uncrisp nori, flavor was sacrificed for eye appeal.
Sea urchin espuma Loved the sweet briny flavors in this foamy soup served in demitasse, very delectable.
HIRO SONE, Terra, St. Helena, CA
Miyagi oyster in ponzu Easy presentation for a walk-around tasting, a single raw oyster marinated in a slightly spicy ponzu sauce served in a Japanese soup spoon
Chawan-mushi of Maine lobster Impressive to watch these steamed on site for freshness, silky egg custard with a slightly smoky nuance with barely cooked lobster chunks, fresh shitake slivers and topped with fresh grated yuzu
Sonoma foie gras and Japanese BBQ eel One of the most fantastic things Ive ever put in my mouth and a great opportunity to compare the styling against Michelle Bernsteins interpretation of the same ingredients. The eel was still warm and layered on firmly packed seasoned rice to create Kansai-style sushi and topped with a hot piece of seared foie gras. The glaze was nuanced, even understated to let the other flavors shine through, and not candy-sweet.
All three dishes were so well-crafted, cant wait to visit Terra for a full meal experience.
RICK EDGE, Pacifics Edge, Carmel, CA
Braised prime beef short ribs, whipped potatoes and white truffle oil As eye-popping as Sones trio of dishes was, this was my favorite of the night. A deboned morsel of rich and tender beef with intense braised flavors on a bed of cream-enriched potatoes, doused with a good dollop of fragrant truffle oil, a supporting and not overpowering demi-glace sauce, and a crowning touch of micro greens and fleur de sel that added a sweet/salty/crunchy accent. Bravo!
The home team from the Highlands Inn came through beautifully, and Im sorry I didnt have time to wait for his other two offerings. Id love to try more from this kitchen.
A fantastic array of wines and foods, Im sorry I had only an hour to sample around. I missed more than half the offerings and all the desserts.
More on this gastronomic adventure soon at my next break . . .