Gary Ibsen and Dagma Lacey see off their signature TomatoFest with the flavor locals have come to expect.
Thursday, September 4, 2008
For the decidedly epic event, Monterey Marriott-3 Flags’ Willi Franz has crafted a caravan of scarlet corn-crusted green zebra heirloom tomato sliders with pepper-griddled citrus soft-shelled blue crab and caricia aioli.
Talk about a mouthful.
And Franz is just one of dozens of superlative chefs who will wield things like Cherokee purple tomato “caviar” and heirloom tomato butter sauce: Tarragon’s Ryan Smith will serve smoked tomato panna cotta and cured trout with rhubarb gelée; A. Scott Cater of Casablanca will provide scallop and lobster mousseline with heirloom tomato relish.
In short, there’s ample evidence that NatureSweet Carmel TomatoFest is about some fabulous food and legendary fruit (Beach Boys, Big Beefs, Believe It or Nots and Belii Nalivs among them). But those familiar with the spirit of the event– including the man who has made its big heirloom heart beat since Day 1– know it’s about a lot more.
Over the course of 17 years, local farmer and heirloom obsessor Gary Ibsen has grown what was once an informal, backyard affair into the can’t-miss culinary event of the fall, a harvest celebration brimming with 350 varieties of heirlooms, 200 wines and 70 smiling chefs that sells out its 3,000 tickets with the reliability of a Rolex. This year will be Ibsen’s last, to allow him to better safeguard his health and spend more time with family and on other projects, including gardening books and the TomatoFest Seed Donations Program.
The strong character of the heirloom has helped him cultivate a growing celebrity and national attention from publications like the New York Times, USA Today and Sunset Magazine; Ibsen says the fruit with the funky shapes has been a vehicle for grander themes that cut to the core of key food traditions. Primary among them: memory, identity and flavor.
“To share the fruit is to share the stories of family farms, family history and cultural history,” he says. “It’s up to me to share the legacy of the story as well as the food– then guests can take back some of the ownership of growing their own food… We encourage them give up a little lawn for a garden, to shop regionally and locally so they can be ensured of having more delicious tastes and more nutritious food.”
Without a venue to embrace the great flavors, Ibsen adds, our society will continue to fumble away the elements that often best feed our stomachs and souls.
“There’s been a 30 percent drop in the number of heirloom varieties… ” he says. “We’re losing precious heirlooms. The seeds that feed us, major corporations own most of them.”
By giving chefs a platform to explore the glory of time-honored tomato strains– and distributing seeds to schools, inner-city communities and Third World farmers through his nonprofit– Ibsen sees a parallel between his work and the function of the International Seed Vault in Norway.
“I’m doing seed bank in my own way– I suppose that’s one way of preserving a legacy,” he says. “Too bad we can’t do it with so many fish in the ocean and other foods we are losing. I tell my children, who are now young men: Be grateful for the food you are eating… in this lifetime we may lose half of it. What are you gonna do about it? We have a responsibility of providing people with the opportunity of wonderful pleasures of the variety of foods we have been blessed with. I see the heirloom tomato as medium for my message.”
These themes might seem ambitious, but the execution is simple: stay connected to fresh, flavorful produce. It befits an event that retains the laid-back nature of its first backyard incarnation. It also retains the salt-of-the earth earnestness of two people devoted to the basic pleasure of flavor in a field: both Ibsen and his wife and event partner, Dagma Lacey, separately give the exact same response when asked about their ultimate tomato experience. (No rhubarb gelée involved.)
“It’s the simplest and most wonderous way to enjoy an heirloom: I’m walking in field on a hot summer’s day and can smell the fragrance of earth,” Ibsen says. “I pluck a big juicy tomato, warmed by sun and full of that perfect ripeness, full of the delicious flavors that carry the best of what that tomato is.”
Not that they won’t enjoy the sun-dried heirloom poblano and panela cheese sweet corn tamales with tomato bricklayers sauce.
The NatureSweet Carmel TomatoFest takes place 12:30-4:30pm Sunday, Sept. 14, at Quail Lodge Resort in Carmel. Tickets at $95. www.tomatofest.com, 1-800-965-4827.