Bikinis and Caviar
From L.A. Food & Wine 2 to Curly’s Barbecue, tastebuds are buzzing.
Thursday, August 16, 2012
At one afterparty, Christina Aguilera stood directly in front of Seaside-based DJ Hanif Wondir’s turntables and threw her arm up and down while her dancer pals danced on his subwoofers. On the same dance floor, slimmer-than-ever L.A. Food & Wine co-founder Dave Bernahl of Carmel sweated like a sumo wrestler in a sauna – but that wasn’t the crazy part, as it was 100-degree hot all weekend; the insanity would be the hand-swirl-over-the-head-then-drop-to-the-back-of-the-ankles-then-pop-up super move he unleashed.
Upstairs a “mermaid” swam around the after-party pool while a small team of Mad Max-looking fire performers washed flames over her head with blowtorches and heavy breathing – maybe with the same “mojito” gas one chef filled balloons with at the grand tasting earlier that day.
No, you can’t spell “surreal” without an “L” and an “A.” But for all of the collagen and compressed watermelon, celebrity sightings and dehydrated sea urchin at the second annual, there was a nourishing amount of substance to it.
Take the chef, who declares with his mouth and his menu, “We’re in Mexico. Get in touch with your inner Latino.”
Wondir and I were at John Rivera Sedlar’s Rivera Restaurant (in L.A.), on a lunch recommendation from Bernahl. Wondirboy had the duck “enfrijolada” with poached organic egg and cascabel chile sauce ($14) and the appropriately surreal “barbacoa” cocktail with smoky mezcal, chipotle, bell pepper, ginger and hickory-smoked jerkey ($13), me the sous vide-slow-roasted pork shoulder ($12) with pickled artichoke hearts and the Oaxacan peace pipe with Chichicapa mezcal, rye whiskey, black pepper, dandelion and burdock bitters ($12). Damn. Welcome to L.A.
The City of Angels, after all, has the second largest population of Mexicans after Mexico City. But few places in the world could play such a perfect setting for what chef told us about next: an experimental/experiential tequila tasting menu that pairs cactus juice cocktails from premier L.A. mixologists with things like fresh hamachi with chiles, kumquats, chives and lime across six courses that speak to and spook the soul. There’s even a multi-artist visual element to the lineup – which is called Hallucination – moving across the flat screens. It gets better: Rivera Sedlar’s Museum Tamal project he’s co-founding on South Grand Avenue, dedicated to becoming the “first museum of its kind dedicated solely to the celebration of Latin culture viewed through the lens of food,” with a star chef lineup including Jesus Bojorquez (Maseca), Patricia Quintana (Izote) and Mary Sue Milliken (Border Grill).
“Chef Rivera Sedlar is telling a story,” his GM Mary Thompson says. “His medium is food.”
The creative Latin explosiveness wasn’t exclusive to Rivera. On the raised VIP lounge of Saturday night’s Lexus Live on the Plaza with Wolfgang Puck, in the middle of downtown’s still-new equivalent of New York’s Times Square, Gustavo Santaolalla talked about the links between music, film and wine. He’s qualified, after all, with 15 Grammys and back-to-back Oscar-winning film scores (Brokeback Mountain and Babel) to his credit.
“Every good wine should tell a story,” he said. “Like a good piece of music. It should tell you something different.”
His rich and balanced Malbec tells the story of a sober young superstar bounced from his homeland by the infamous military dictatorship that “disappeared” thousands, found a love for wine in an adopted California and returned south to sow grapes in Mendoza, Argentina.
Then there’s Deborah Keane’s story of taking on a caviar industry with a paucity of women leaders and a surplus of criminal records. For her it’s not enough to be the only woman in an Eastern Bloc-dominated industry that’s delicately balancing the fragile existence of sturgeon without cutting black-market deals. The California Caviar founder and CEO is also an articulate spokesperson for mindfully harvested eggs and a vibrant after-party dancer – which is just caviar on the cracker.
It’s easy to be swept up in those stories – and the local storylines. There were 32 volunteers who are veterans of LAFW older sibling Pebble Beach Food & Wine, 21 from Monterey County – plus gifted winemakers like Pierce Ranch and McIntyre, clairvoyant chefs like John Cox of Sierra Mar and sommeliers like Toby Rowland-Jones of Big Sur (see the blog for more).
Last year, in the closing throes of LAFW’s debut, I found Mark Ayers, the event’s executive chef and the man who has been charged with sorting the organizational and ingredient needs of these fleets of high-flying chefs. I asked him to explain what had just happened.
He said it took an Angelino, a higher-up at the same AEG that steers Staples Center, its infinite A-list concerts and rents to its unrivaled pro sports teams (including the now-Dwight Howard-empowered Lakers, world champ Kings and suddenly upstart Clippers). The man said L.A.’d seen nothing like it.
This year, pressed with a symmetrical question, Ayers answered with a question: “How do you sum it all up?”
Hmmm. Maybe with this: 280,000 portions of food; one St. Vincent’s Meals on Wheels charity; 210,000 pieces of flatware (and lots less plastic); 35,000 glassware stems; 15,000 bottles of wine; 120,000 square feet of carpet; 250 gallons of Champagne; 40 Lexus courtesy vehicles and one hour of sleep for the Coastal Luxury Management star Sarah Potter over the first two nights?
Or this, from a note Bernahl sent his team in advance of opening night: “Within two years, this partnership has created a nationally recognized food and wine event that rivals the top food and wine events in the country. In 2013, South Beach Food & Wine will mark its 12th year in operation, and Aspen Food & Wine will mark its 31st… When you step back to consider the fact that our event, in its second year, rivals such long standing competition, we all must admit that is something that is worthy of reflection and pride!”
We can also admit the wider narrative is more qualitative than quantitative, more art than science, more real than surreal, and that it started here. There’s a story being told with as many facets as the silver skyscrapers of revitalized and thriving downtown L.A. Pretty good one, really. Tasty, too.
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When your office neighbor is Curly’s Barbecue (394-7274), you learn the power of its smoky seduction. One day a dieting intern sat down at her desk announcing her regimen was over thanks to a dream she had about Curly’s ribs, which won the Santa Cruz BBQ Rib Cook-off in 2010. When I looked up just before 11am, when Curly’s opens, her chair, already empty, was still spinning.
Other things you learn: Italian-Turkish immigrant Curly Kocek is old-school. He rises at obscene hours to fire up a grill in a concrete corner of a small parking lot before most hit the snooze button. Every day. When he and his son Haigo asked the local pay phone company to remove the phone on their corner to shoo away the pimps and prostitutes who used it – and the company refused – they took matters into their own hands. They tied the phone to their truck and yanked it from the wall. When the company re-installed the phone a few weeks later, they promptly pulled it off again.
Also old-school: a bikini car wash. Haigo says a couple things inspired Sunday’s noon-4pm afternoon event and its $2 Bud and Bud Light, $5 pulled pork/chicken/tri-tip sandwiches, DJ, hot-dog-eating contest and $15-$20 car washes. One: A friend of his who does promotions at Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway said it would be a way to drum up a little dough for her and her friends, a little support for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and a little attention for the family-owned joint. (It also feels somewhat refreshing – as Haigo and his team acknowledge, no one’s doing anything adventurous or exciting like that around here – and a little exploitative/controversial too. Visit the Weekly Facebook page to weigh in.)
Haigo adds his friends have told him a party like this is a brave undertaking, with the promotions pal predicting his arrest, and others saying, “You don’t know what you’re getting into.”
But, then again, neither did the pay phone company.
•The renamed (and adorable) Inn at Del Monte Beach, now Hotel 1110 (655-0515), kicks off a tempting fall dinner series that pairs elegant local foods with a chance to visit with area tastemakers like photographer-artist Kim Weston Wednesday, Aug 22 ($75/dinner; $275/dinner for two and a room). Weston helped design the four-course, wine-paired menu in honor of his wife Gina, whose Sicilian pops showed Kim all sorts of ravishing recipes.
• Sure, I’ve stood in Julia Child’s kitchen – but that was its replica at the Smithsonian, which reopened this week. Local cookbook author and American Institute of Wine & Food stalwart Mary Chamberlin has hung in the real one (and had Child in hers). “Frivolity was her whole thing in life,” Chamberlin says. She’ll be on hand to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Child’s birth – which was Wednesday – with a gala ($175-$225) at Hyatt Highlands Sunday, Aug. 26, with an overloaded-and-lofty lineup of chefs including Matt Bolton, Jeff Jake, Peter Armellino and Mark Ayers. “You cannot believe the people coming out of the woodwork for this,” Chamberlin says, “from across the country.”
•Fourth annual Bernardus Lodge Garden Party ($65) unleashes live music, new-release Bernardus wines, plus signature cocktails and hors d’ouevres from the re-swanked Marinus Restaurant 2-5pm Sunday, Aug. 26, while the lush garden grounds are at their peak. The Heirloom Tomato Lunch ($95 inclusive) happens Saturday, Sept. 1, with Cal Stamenov and rolling out 15 dishes like picnic chicken, fried green tomatos and zucchini cupcakes. 658-3550, www.bernardus.com.
•Wine and photos? Sign me up. “Apertures & Appellations,” a wine tasting event at the Center for Photographic Art 4-6pm at Sunset Center Saturday, Aug. 25 – featuring local photogs and Boeté, Joyce and Pessagno wines is just $5 for CPA and Boeté members and $10 otherwise.
• “You learn to cook so that you don’t have to be a slave to recipes,” Julia Child once said. “You get what’s in season and you know what to do with it.”