20/20 Vision: 20 Defining Images and Corresponding Thoughts from the Second Annual Los Angeles Food & Wine
August 16, 2012
Trying to transmit the mood of the hot-as-the-record-weather Second Annual Los Angeles Food & Wine in only 20 images would be pretty much impossible.
But they said something close to the same thing when the Cannery Row-headquartered Coastal Luxury Management set out with its small-but-tight tactical team to do no less than capture L.A.'s epicurean imagination.
Fittingly enough, CLM co-founder David Bernahl had this to say to the cameras assembled on the red carpet media line opening night as he moved along between TV celebrity chef and host of the night Giada de Laurentiis and my new favorite visionary chef, John Rivera Sedlar: “Four days of food and wine on par with the entertainment capital of the world!”
It was Bernahl who sent me to downtown's Rivera for lunch earlier that day when I asked for a walkable spot. As inspiring as the duck "enfrijolada" with poached organic egg and cascabel chile sauce ($14) might've been—and the insane "barbacoa" cocktail with smoky mezcal, chipotle, bell pepper, ginger and hickory-smoked jerkey ($13)—it was what he's doing with an experimental/experiential tequila tasting menu that is truly tasty. He pairs cactus juice cocktails from premier L.A. mixologists with things like fresh hamachi with fresno chiles, kumquats, chives and lime across six or so courses that speak to the soul. There's even an art element to the "Hallucination" menu rotating across the flat screens, plus a Museum Tamal project he's curating on South Grand Avenue that translates Latin history through food.
When I caught the other Weakley, LAFW and Pebble Food & Wine co-founder Rob, in front of the swank JW Marriott where much of the downtown events were centered, I asked him about ticket sales. Puncturing the thick layer of L.A. events was a major challenge year one. "Through the roof," he said, grinning a matching grin. "We woke up L.A.!"
The impressive numbers stretched beyond the 120,000 square feet of red carpet laid over downtown's Times Square-esque LA Live! No fewer than 100 percent of marquee events sold out; 15,000 bottles of wine were drank too.
Prunedale’s Cheryl Warner of McIntyre Vineyards, which celebrates a quarter century of pioneering work in Santa Lucia Highlands this fall, repped mightily. Here she pours their select estate Chard, or “Chardonnay on steroids,” where they take their best block and then the best row from it, strip all clusters from each shoot but one. The all-estate result is bigger, fuller, more intense organic action...
Josh Pierce Vineyards was also one of a handful of local winemakers pouring—and he might have a little of the L.A. entertainment vibe in his blood, with a tasting room that doubles as an intimate concert setting—saying the Cosechiero Portuguese blend ($21.95) he’s raising in deep Monterey County (Lockwood) is ”an example of our addiction to experimentation...” So is the tasty Touriga ($21.95) and rare local Tempranillo ($19.95).
He first registered with me by way of a "bacon-wrapped bacon" at a PBFW Grand Tasting two years ago, but Fig Chef Ray Garcia long ago made a name for himself with ahead-of-the-curve, farm-to-table fare—he was listing peak seasonal ingredients on his menu years ago—so his Santa Monica spot was a must-do day two. It didn't disappoint, with poolside seating, savvy service, a tasty Bootlegger IPA and fresh sole tacos recommended by staff thanks to freshness and a superior spicy house sauce and impeccable avocado. He was part of a $350 indulgence with four chefs on the premises that night.
One beauty of LAFW: All the options for an interlude if you can stomach traffic, including Venice Beach, which was absolutely flooded with folks of every freaky and international variety on Friday, from the turban dude playing electric guitar on his rollerblades to the kids on the foaming soap bus parked by the basketball court to the guy asking $1 for pictures of his dog, saying, “Hairy carmel toe…I got me a real dog...” When I tried to hand him a buck, he made me do the tuck, adding, "Now rub her belly."
As LAFW sets up bases in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Hollywood—designing events to fit the tastes and feature the chefs of each area, like Asian Night Market downtown and I Heart Champagne and Caviar in the Hills—I worked my way over to the iconic Fairmont Hotel bungalow where Wilshire meets the Pacific for Summer at the Shore. While SaMo's The Lobster Chef Collin Crannel earned the biggest line with his melty pork belly towered on lobster meat and all sorts of other indulgence, Boston's Graham Elliot piled crab, sea foam, sea weeds and edible “sand” in a sea urchin shell. Note: the sand on the table is NOT edible. Well, technically it was…but I can't call it the best palate setter of all time.
Big Sur's Toby Rowland-Jones (left) helped coordinate sommeliers and wineries, and reminded folks of his upcoming Big Sur Food and Wine in early November. He also told me he was looking for a sweet young Asian something then added, "Oh, here he is," turning to hug Seaside’s Hanif Wondir. Wondir says the highlight of the after parties where he DJ'd all weekend, was when Bernahl told him he had to get down to the turn tables where a second DJ was providing rare reprieve.
Why? Christina Aguilera was on her way and needed some hip hop. Cue the explosion of the dance floor. "The Voice" judge proceeded to dance right in in front of Wondir, waving her hand from head to hip while her dancer friends took to the top of the subwoofers. On a related note, Wondir's going to be appearing regularly at Restaurant 1833—owned by the same folks who run LAFW—on Fridays.
All weekend there was a delicious juxtaposition of the elaborate-molecular-intense—Montage Beverly Hills chef Gabriel Ask did an insane summer corn panna cotta with dehydrated uni dust and all sorts of other tiny essences for a grand tasting, for example—with the wonderfully simple, like this otherworldly buratta and bread, or the baby plates of heirloom tomato with watermelon dressing.
Sarah Potter, Bernahl's executive assistant and all around Coastal Luxury Management glue, hustled from event to event all weekend with an iPad, laptop and towering stiletto heels, pausing only briefly in a tiny trailer to sit down with her computers, charge walkie talkies and soak up some AC while delivery trucks vibrated the stark ops outpost next to the swank tasting tent. She says she didn't get a chance to sleep opening night and snuck but an hour night two.
At Saturday's Lexus Tent Grand Tasting the Hollywood-esque insanity set in by way of a Drew Barrymore Pinot Grigio that's actually no gimmick—particularly for those who light real-deal Italian whites—balloons filled with gasified "mojito" from Joe's Stone Crab Chef Andre Bienvenu and a Living Social lounge with faces to sit on.
Celeb cooking TV celebs Andrew Zimmern of "Bizarre Foods" and Guy Fieri embraced on the red carpet at the Saturday blockbuster Lexus Live on the Plaza with Wolfgang Puck. Then Fieri yelled to Rowland-Jones, "Hey Kristal guy! Some Champagne! Or a Jack and Coke!"
You know it's not an afterparty until the mermaid shows up. Then the guy with the blowtorch materialized in a Burning Man-Mad Max outfit and blew flame over her, garbling something about "seared ahi." Or maybe that was the featured summer Guwertztraminers talking.
Lexus rolled its finest near the stage where Third Eye Blind sang, "Why don't step back from that ledge my friend/ You could cut ties before the lies that you've been liven' in." In the Staples Center behind him, the Red Hot Chili Peppers readied for the second of two shows. Forty Lexus courtesy vehicles (and drivers) were available 20 hours a day, while those driving their own Lexuses got free valet at events.
John Cox, new chef at Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn, did Wagyu beef from Lone Mountain Ranch with elderflower, Balinese pepper and compressed watermelon. For his Delicacies Dinner collaboration in Bel Air he brought along four kinds of Monterey Bay kelp and treated them a bunch of different ways (smoked, pressed, cured, crispy, pickled and raw, if my notes don't betray me). Better news: Cox and Sierra Mar will co-host BSFW's grand tasting, a very portentous partnership for the still relatively young festival.
Roy Yamaguchi showed what a master can do with a pristine piece of meat, slow-cooking his short rib to untenably tender and backing it with kombucha gnocchi and other morsels. One telling takeaway from the 55-events-in-an-event: The memorable amount of sought-after chefs who I've seen repeatedly at Coastal Luxury Management events (including the after parties) from Hubert Keller to Fieri to Puck to Chris Cosentino to all seven Lexus Legends, a powerful vital sign that backs up Bernahl's claim that many top-shelfers are eager to have a presence—and make their presence felt.
As crowds surged well past Saturday's substantial size on Sunday, braving 100-degree heat that rivaled Dwight Howard for headlines all week—one volunteer told me they'd already reloaded the big table of 1,000 wine glasses three times, twice that of a day earlier—I asked Coastal Luxury Management Executive Chef Mark Ayers to put it all in perspective. "Last year people told us was off the charts," he said. "This year was more guests, and even more of that reaction."
Interestingly, Bernahl—who coughed up one of the more outrageous dance moves of the weekend at the afterparty and logged plenty of billards in the bar area too—didn't have to wait until after the event, per normal, to get a handle on what was happening. Here's an excerpt from an internal note he sent out to staffers in advance of opening night: "Sometimes we forget how proud we should be. I’ve found in my own experience that it isn’t until after the weekend has concluded that I truly realize how amazing the moment in time really was…
"This year, for me at least, has been a different case…Throughout the past month and a half that we have been living full time down here in L.A., I’ve found that the anticipation, excitement and build up that I’ve witnessed and felt from the community, locally and nationally, has left me more inspired and excited than I have ever been at the onset of any project we've ever embarked on."