As good cooks know, there’s a fine line between a sauce that blends together and one that curdles. Besides having the right ingredients, timing is everything. Experience doesn’t hurt either. Fortunately, the movers behind Laguna Beach a la Carte – A Food & Wine Experience, about to host its second annual four-day celebration of food and wine from March 8 to 11, have managed to assemble the best ingredients with impeccable timing.
They’ve also learned from past experience. Like the best chefs, they took the recipe for last year’s food fest and spiced it up to make it better, beginning with their signature kick-off event. “Laguna Beach Uncorked! An International Wine & Food Fest,” from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 10, promises to be a savory and sensory remake of the Festival of Arts’ grounds.
Under the aegis of the Laguna Beach Visitors & Conference Bureau, 25 Laguna restaurants have put their toques together to offer guests a sampling of their best culinary efforts, complimented by libations from 25 international wineries, as well as a brewery and a sake producer.
Ten years of exploration by local gourmets and restaurateurs, including Karyn Philippsen, a self-proclaimed food lover and chairman of the board of the Laguna Beach Visitors & Conference Bureau, culminated in the inaugural event last year. Promoters gambled on their hunch that Laguna’s foodie vibe had reached critical mass and they went for it.
Last year, 20 restaurants agreed to participate in a four-day celebration that was more a meeting of culinary minds than a an actual coalition by offering various specials and/or special events at their own venues, while the Visitors Bureau spearheaded marketing.
Tasty as it was, it didn’t quite coalesce since the ingredients remained separate, even for the kick-off event, a wine and food event hosted solely by Laguna Culinary Arts under tents in their parking lot.
Still, the hunch paid off. A number of the restaurant-hosted events sold out in advance. As for the kick-off, Nancy Milby, founding executive director of Laguna Culinary Arts, admitted at the time that she had put a lot on the line and that the score of California wineries she had recruited to participate in the tasting counted on her to bring in an educated clientele. They were not disappointed. Milby said she received fantastic feedback from the vintners, who expressed enthusiasm over customers truly interested in the wines and the process. Many pledged they would happily come back.
This year, organizers aimed higher. It shows. “Uncorked,” the kick-off event, sprouted from a true collaboration among chefs, who put in hours of planning in addition to food and staff donated to the tasting extravaganza, a benefit for CHOC. They have also agreed to offer specials or host special events on their own premises. Among the highlights are a winemaker’s dinner at Laguna Culinary Arts on Friday, March 9; a “Sunset & Savor” presentation of small bites and live music at Surf & Sand’s pool deck on Saturday, March 10; a cocktail competition at The Deck at Pacific Edge Hotel on Sunday, March 10; and “Garden to Table: A Culinary Experience” at Studio at Montage on March 10.
“It’s a very big step on the part of the restaurants,” said Philippsen, who has been meeting regularly with participating restaurants since December.
“We’re trying to at least put together a foundation” for an ongoing event, said Lindsay Smith-Rosales, the chef/owner of Nirvana Grille, who will offer a chef’s demo, in addition to hosting a booth at Uncorked. Nirvana will serve a special farmer’s market prix fixe chef’s dinner each night for $65, as well as host a farmer’s market cooking class and lunch on March 11.
“This community is amazing when it pulls together,” said Milby, who used her wine importing contacts to hand-pick the 25 wineries from across the globe that will offer tastings at Uncorked. “It’s been such a pleasure working with everybody.”
Who said too many chefs spoil the broth?
“Each year we want to grow a little more,” said Ashley Johnson, the Visitors Bureau’s marketing director, who lured sponsors to help underwrite the event. Besides local businesses, including the Indy and Union Bank, she scored several product sponsors. Fiji Water will supply bottled water and recycle the castoffs, Verterra will supply biodegradable plates and cutlery, and Waste Management has committed to recycling even food waste along with the paper, plastic and trash.
At least seven Laguna hotels are also offering special rates and packages. Aliso Creek Inn and Casa Laguna Inn and Spa, for example, are each offering 20 percent discounts to Laguna a la Carte patrons.
If all follows the gastronomic grand plan, foodies will flock to Laguna each March in the same way that the summer festivals lure art lovers. Philippsen’s wish list future events include a presentation by Aliso Creek Honey, olive oil tastings, and maybe a guest chef from Menton, France, Laguna’s sister city.
Laguna a la Carte boasts similar ingredients as the mecca of gustatory pilgrimages, the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this June: wine and food tastings, a seminar with a master sommelier, chef’s demonstrations and special menus by myriad chefs. All that’s missing are the celebrity chefs such as Jacques Pépin, Mario Batali, José Andrés and Thomas Keller, among the big names wielding their knives at Aspen this year.
In the meantime, Laguna a la Carte will give our own culinary heroes the chance to flex their epicurean prowess.
“It’s going to be an awesome event,” Milby promised.
For a complete list of events and specials, visit: http://www.lagunabeachinfo.com/foodies/alacarte/
Laguna Beach restaurants offering food samples at Uncorked include: 230 Forest Avenue, The Beach House, Broadway by Amar Santana, Claes Ovation, The Deck, Dizz’s As Is, Eva’s Caribbean Kitchen, French 75, House of Big Fish & Ice Cold Beer, Katsuya, K’ya Bistro Bar, Laguna Culinary Arts, Las Brisas, Mosaic Bar & Grille at Montage, Mozambique Steakhouse, Nirvana Grille, Royal Hawaiian, Sapphire Restaurant & Pantry, Splashes Restaurant, Starfish Laguna, Sundried Tomato, Tabu Grill, Three Seventy Common Kitchen + Drink, Tommy Bahama and Watermarc Restaurant.
Participating wineries include Axel, Beacon Hill, Belasco de Baquedano, Bernardus, Boekenhoutskloof, Chateau Montelena, Domaine Serene, Fairview, Famille Perrin, Frank Family Vineyards, Fuedo Maccari, Hedges Family Estate, La Playa, Louis Michel & Fils, Marqués de Murrieta, Michele Chiarlo, Neil Ellis, Pazo de Barrantes, Penfolds, Retour, Tenute di Nozzole, Thompkin Cellars, Tres Sabores, Vincent Delaporte. Beer tastings provided by Cismontane Brewing Company. Sake tastings provided by Ty Ku Sake.