TomatoFest celebrates the stuff of sauces, the backbone of Bloody Marys.
Thursday, September 11, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnell: Juicy Crop: Gary Ibsen shows off some heirlooms.
What Concours d''Elegance is to classic cars, so the Carmel TomatoFest is to classic tomatoes.
Begun 12 years ago as a backyard garden party with a menu theme that paid homage to the bejeweled bounty of summer''s most luscious vines, the Carmel TomatoFest-scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 14 at Quail Lodge-is now in its 12th year. This year it''s bigger and better than ever in both the entertainment it offers and the scope of its mission, that of celebrating food and wine, organic gardening and children''s education at this red-hot event.
It''s the tomatoes that will be front and center, however, with some 350 heirloom varieties available for tasting.
Gary Ibsen, creator and director of the TomatoFest since its inception, has been growing heirloom tomatoes for 30 years. He now cultivates more than 425 varieties from seeds sourced from family farms around the world, most of which he has personally harvested-a process that involves squeezing a whole lotta tomatoes to extract all those tiny little seeds.
Ibsen''s background is colorful and varied, traversing the wine, food and publishing industries, life experience that eventually culminated in his advocacy of organic, sustainable farming and seed harvesting.
Take all those love interests and throw in a green thumb, and you have the footprint for what started out as a small, mostly local event that this year will welcome 3,000 guests, earning it the distinction of one of the top culinary attractions in the country. Sunset magazine is now a primary sponsor, even devoting a full-page ad to the event in a recent issue. The magazine will join the festivities by sponsoring food, wine and gardening displays and demonstrations.
"There are a couple of things that make this event a unique concept," says Ibsen. "We have farmers, chefs and winemakers coming together, with the tomato being the jewel that carries the message, which is about organics, seed saving and the importance of protecting the bio-diversity of our foods. Then there is the quality of the food prepared by 60 chefs participating from around the country, entertainment that the whole family can enjoy, and an added emphasis on the education of children."
TomatoFest is emphatically not a trade show, Ibsen says. "It''s an event that invites the whole family to come together and share an amazing food experience. Every year we''ve seen more children of all ages in attendance, and making a tasting experience out of it. And what that does is open them up to not only becoming discriminating eaters, but to discovering the important benefits of the shared experience of the dining table."
Children under 12 are admitted free to the festival-everyone else pays $75-and net proceeds will go to several children''s programs, one of which is the Edible Schoolyard. Originated by Alice Waters, this program is devoted to changing school lunch programs by integrating organic gardening and culinary education into school curricula.
The Children''s Organic Garden Project, a similar program for low-income, urban public school students, is another recipient, actively participating at the festival with their own garden displays. The American Institute of Wine and Food''s "Days of Taste," directed toward education at the elementary school level, will also benefit, along with the Sunset TomatoFest Scholarship Fund and the Carmel Valley Community Youth Center.
Expanding even more the level of children''s participation, the Community Partnership for Youth will manage a lemonade stand at TomatoFest and Jazzmasters Workshop Kids will be playing live music.
Joined by a number of local chefs, well-known celebrity chefs from around the country-Martin Yan, Dean Fearing, John Ash and Norman Van Aken, to name a few-will be on hand presenting their remarkable array of some 60 heirloom tomato dishes.
Conch shells stuffed with pork cheeks, heirloom tomatoes and ricotta cheese, from Peppoli chef Steven Blackwell, and white chocolate pot de crème with orange-scented oven-roasted tomatoes from The Getty Center''s Chef Jim Dodge suggest just the tip of the iceberg of this tomato-inspired culinary extravaganza. All of this, plus an extravagant country barbecue, a "Salsa Showcase" tasting of 90 of the nation''s best tomato salsas, and an "International Olive Oil Tasting," creates a tantalizing line-up.
All pretty amazing when you consider the fact that the whole thing began when Ibsen was looking for a market for his own tomato crop.
"When I first went to Whole Foods Market, it was with two 20-pound cases a week," he says. "Most people didn''t know what they were, they were orange and yellow and green and red, all different shapes and sizes. But we did tastings for the customers, the only way to expand their horizons. And they discovered the tastes.
"Now," he smiles, "[Monterey] Whole Foods sells two tons of my tomatoes a month."
Proving, as Ibsen is fond of quoting, that "there''s nothin'' finer in life than true love and a homegrown tomato."
The Carmel TomatoFest takes place Sept. 14 from 12:30-4:30pm at the Quail Lodge Resort, Carmel Valley Road at Mid-Valley. $75/person, children under 12 free. 888-989-8171 or www.TomatoFest.com.