A woman has a request for the front desk: Cupcakes. Not just any cupcakes, but six flavors to fit her pregnant urges – like Buddha’s hand citrus, maple bacon, kaffir lime and Valrhona chocolate. Three of each. Pretty please.
On another occasion, a man looking to impress his Playboy model ladyfriend submits his own request: Stalk my sweetie as she cruises Carmel shops. Find out what she likes. Buy it. And arrange the $7,000 of stuff in the wine cellar.
Maybe you find those requests strange. Or the fact they were comprehensively honored stranger still. At places like L’Auberge Relais & Châteaux in Carmel, though – where the requests happened – there’s nothing strange about them, or at least the fact they were met. It’s just another day in the lobby.
That’s the level of service that happens at hotel of its ilk. It carries into the small, impeccable restaurant, Aubergine, where they know your name, your preference in water and how to blow your mind with seafood sorbets and foie mousse wrapped in compressed beet. That über obsession with attention is there in the name, Relais & Châteaux.
Those who drop as much as $6,000 a night for hotel stays in the most beautiful places in the world know as much. For those who don’t, the fact that the freshly announced, 15-event GourmetFest in Carmel – coming March 27-30 – is a celebration of that hotel-restaurant fellowship’s 60th anniversary is a very good thing. It means GourmetFest holds the potential to stake a place in the conversation around the most sumptuous food-and-drink festival in the world, because – like its restaurants and hotels – it’s about almost absurd quality, not quantity.
The guy behind it: David Fink, who owns L’Auberge (and Aubergine inside it, and Cantinetta Luca and 400 Degrees – more on those in a second), was one of three founders of the Masters of Food and Wine, which he helped orchestrate at what’s now Hyatt Carmel Highlands, for 14 years. He’s also the West Coast chair for Relais & Châteaux, meaning part of his duties include directing anonymous visits to applicant hotel-restaurants.
“Gourmet cuisine has been in the heart of Relais & Châteaux for the past 60 years,” he says, “and we want to take a moment to celebrate the fine foods and finest wines and champagnes.”
It helps that they can bring in so many of their own Relais & Châteaux chefs. Each member spot must include an on-site restaurant, and not just one with a sturdy continental breakfast. If those restaurants want their chef to receive grand chef status from the family of hotel-restaurants, there’s another round of secret inspections – and voting – from folks that register on a particular end of the anal retentive spectrum. The exciting news there: Of the 18 Relais & Châteaux chefs coming to GourmetFest – coated in accolades from the James Beard Foundation and including the likes of Christopher Kostow and Jean Michel Lorain, two of the three youngest chefs to ever earn three Michelin stars – 12 are grand chefs.
“Special destinations, special restaurants, special chefs,” Fink says.
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Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef Johann Lafer of Germany has done it all – and that’s beyond his game changing Le Val d’Or castle-restaurant and its complete decor switches every season to match the menu changes. He has authored 60 books. He has appeared on TV so much he built his own studio. He started a weeklong national festival of taste with the German ministry of food, ag and consumer protection. He lectures for nutritionists and stumps for school restaurants, even installing a fresh-but-affordable display kitchen in one. He’s also a licensed helicopter pilot who runs a “heli gourmet” operation that choppers people to eat at a UNESCO World Heritage site.
He’s one of those grand chefs anchoring intimate events starting at $160 and rising to $5,250 for the wildly indulgent and expensive “Rarities Dinner” with Aubert De Villaine, Veronique Drouhin and Olivier Krug, which has sold out. The welcome party ($225) assembles 11 of them with 30 wineries – think Fink, Pisoni, Talbott plus the Krugs and Weingut Donnhoffs of the world – in a huge carpeted “luxury” tent in Sunset Center’s parking lot. A fishmonger-super chef wonderland called the seafood grill ($175) happens in the tent to help close the festivities. There are Ruinart-caviar tastings ($395); Michael White cooking demos ($160); and Grand Cru Bordeaux dinners ($295) in between.
Michael Tusk is another one of those chefs. With his restaurants Quince and Cotogna, he’s one of the hottest chefs in San Francisco. My fellow food writer still talks about Quince’s savory souffle and squash blossoms with a faraway look, months later. Joachim Splichal is another, as he continues to pioneer L.A. food with his flagship restaurant Patina, twice earning nominations as Chef of the Year for the entire country. Then there’s Patrick O’Connell and his five James Beards; White and his new outposts in Hong Kong, London and Instanbul; and Barbara Lynch of the burgeoning Boston dynasty.
The wineries are on the level of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Champagne Krug and Château Cheval Blanc, some of the best in France and Germany, and are each represented by principals or winemakers from each.
If you find it strange that this world-class wattage of flavor is coming to little old Carmel, maybe you’re not familiar with its widening foodie culture. This Thursday and next, Jan. 23 and 30, tastes of Fink’s piece of it won’t require $5,250, either, as Fink opens the doors to each of the Aubergine, Luca and 400 Degrees properties 3:30-5:30pm for locals to look around and try free tastes.
• Peter B’s Brewpub reopens 7pm Friday evening, Jan. 24, after a renovation that’s been going since New Year’s. Mug clubbers get in at 4pm.
• Ventana Inn and Spa (667-2331) hosted much of the Big Sur Foragers Festival. Ventana’s interim executive chef (and former sous) Jason Holzworth won most inventive at the Fungus Face-off, then took off, resigning after being a little burnt out. Tastings with new chef candidates are happening this week. For more on the flavorful mushroom creations, visit the blog, www.mcweekly.com/edible.
• Monterey County gets the Jewish deli it desperately needs – for a day – as Temple Beth El (424-9151) presents their 58th Annual Kosher-Style Deli Lunch and Bake Sale 9am-6pm Thursday, Jan. 30: $11 buys a heaping corned beef or pastrami sandwich with kosher dill pickle, salad, homemade cake and helps out local charities.
• Fresh oysters are $1.50 3-5pm at A.W. Shucks (624-6605) in Carmel.
• The Carmel Valley Wine Experience debuts noon-5pm Sunday, Jan. 26, with cellar passes for discount sips and complimentary small bites at Bernardus, Chesebro, Cima Collina, Holman Ranch, Joullian, Mercy and Parsonage.
• All-you-can-eat crab, pasta, calamari and salad 5pm and 7pm Feb. 1 at Moose Lodge to benefit Monterey High athletics. Emailcwarner@mpusd.k12.ca.us, call 212-5741 or buy tickets at the door. Go Dores.
• Chef Kurt Grasing – who earned our readers votes for best restaurant in Carmel – and The Carmel Foundation host “Philanthropic Foodies” 6pm Thursday, Jan. 30, a gourmet pop-up restaurant-style party loaded with apps, course and sublime local wines ($110, 620-8702).
• Cibo Ristorante (649-8151) dishes a new rotating three-course locals dinner for $19.95 and a glass of house Cabernet or Chardonnay for only $3. It also hopes a Rising International Reception, Dinner, Music & Global Marketplace Event Fundraiser Thursday, Jan. 23.
• Albert Einstein: “The high destiny is to serve rather than to rule.”