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Food & Wine Festival
Chefs A' Field
Chefs A' Field
Culinary Adventures that begin on the Farm
Odyssey Chefs' Showplace
September 30, 2006
Frank Stitt, Highlands Bar & Grill
Michael Dean, Soul Food Farms
Speaker: Bernard Sparr, Vice President
from Michael's Garden
with Little Beets, Carrots, Cipollini, Turnips, Potatoes and Apples
Wine: Pierre Sparr Pinot Gris Reserve
Roast Quail filled with Cornbread and Figs
with watercress, pecans and molasses vinaigrette
Wine: Pierre Sparr Carneros Pinot Noir Prestige
Bourbon Panna Cotta
Wine: Pierre Sparr Cremant Rose
Debra Martin Koma
Senior Editor, ALL EARS®
In previous years, Epcot's Food and Wine Festival offered a program called "Lunch and Learn," which gave attendees the chance to watch a highly regarded chef prepare a three-course lunch, while listening to him or her discuss methods of preparation, as well as the thought-process behind the development of the dish. In addition, the courses were paired with wines from a particular vineyard, and a representative of the winery was on hand to discuss not only the vintages being sampled, but the rationale that went into deciding on the pairing. I attended several of those "Lunch and Learn" demonstrations in the past and found them to be well worth their cost of $75 per person (plus tax). They were a terrific opportunity to try well-prepared foods with the bonus of rubbing elbows with some fantastic culinary masters, such as John Ash and Cat Cora, and winemakers of some renown, such as Peter Mondavi.
This year, the Food and Wine Festival revamped the "Lunch and Learn" concept and developed two separate programs. One, "The Cook, the Book and the Bottle," which was to feature a three-course lunch, paired with wines, along with a cookbook by the visiting chef and a commemorative bottle of wine, was attended by AllEarsNet.com's Deb Wills, and is reviewed HERE. The other, called "Chefs A'Field," is based on a PBS-TV program that looks at chefs who have teamed with local farmers or food producers/purveyors to create menus for regional restaurants. The tagline of the PBS program is "Culinary Adventures that begin on the Farm," with an emphasis on fresh and often organic produce. Along with the format changes, the prices for these programs went up substantially. The Cook, The Book and The Bottle program was $150 per person, plus tax, while the Chefs A'Field program cost $135 per person plus tax. A hefty sum for a two-hour, three-course lunch -- I was anxious to see if it lived up to its price tag.
I attended the very first Chefs A'Field program offered at Epcot's Food and Wine Festival this year, at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, September 30, in the Odyssey, Chef's Showplace. The guest chef for this event was Frank Stitt, an Alabama-born chef/restaurateur who owns and operates Highlands Bar & Grill and Bottega, both in Birmingham. Stitt, who studied philosophy at Berkeley in the '70s, was named 'Best Chef of the Southeast' by the James Beard Foundation in 2001, and has now teamed with former chef and current farmer Michael Dean, owner of Soul Food Farms in Leeds, Alabama, to create innovative menus based on the produce of the season for his restaurants. The duo's culinary efforts were paired during this program with the wines of Pierre Sparr, from the Alsace region of France, a match that makes sense when you learn that Stitt studied cooking in France and reflect many French influences in his dishes. The winery was represented at this program by Bernard Sparr, vice president of the company.
The room was dimly lit and appointed rather elegantly, with five tables set for eight clustered around the elevated cooking stage. The program was emceed, as many of the Food and Wine Festival events in the Chefs' Showplace are, by cookbook author Pam Smith. As Smith introduced Chef Stitt, a video clip from the PBS series was shown on the wide screens that flanked the stage. As I said, the premise of the show is to explore how a chef from a particular area works with a farmer from his or her region, and how that marriage enables the chef to prepare dishes with the freshest possible ingredients, while encouraging the development of regional specialties and supporting local, often organic, farmers. Seeing that the theme of this year's Food and Wine Festival is "Exploring Regional Flavors," the concept behind Chefs A'Field certainly seemed to be a good fit.
As Stitt discussed his background, and then his partnership with Dean, we learned that Dean began his garden on a 1/2-acre plot that was the site of a former parking lot. Dean basically "designed" his own soil, using sterilized compost and other ingredients to come up with a small farm that yields "the freshest and the best" vegetables and herbs. As Stitt noted, this reflects his core philosophy of cooking things in their own time, so that you're in tune with what he called "the rhythm of the seasons."
To emphasize his point, Stitt presented his first dish, a ragout of what he termed "unsung root vegetables," including beets, carrots, turnips, potatoes and cipollini, the sweet, little onions that have a rather flattened appearance. Stitt said that using regional vegetables in season like this "empowered" him to develop menus that not only changed frequently, but celebrated what was best in the season.
The wine paired with the vegetable ragout was an off-dry but aromatic Pinot Gris Reserve. As Bernard Sparr noted, the wine was definitely "fruit-driven," having been aged in stainless steel barrels, rather than oak. It went well with the earthiness of the veggies, particularly bringing out the flavor of the fresh beets in the dish.
Stitt prepared the main course of the lunch, roast quail filled with
a cornbread and fig stuffing, he talked engagingly about his Southern
roots, joking that the sweet cornbread he was using was more "Yankee"
than that he grew up with. His interplay with Dean was both comfortable
and informative, and the two shared stories not only about food preparation,
but of their thoughts on layering vegetables in their different states
(i.e. using raw, dried, and cooked versions of a particular item all
in the same dish), their preference of fresh marjoram over oregano,
and on being "a full-time thyme farmer." ("I could wear
thyme as a cologne!" Dean joked.)
The entree itself, once finally presented to the audience, was exceptional -- the tiny bird was moist, not dried out as it can be under a less watchful eye. Small chunks of ham tossed with the bed of watercress the fowl rested on were a perfect salty counterpoint to the sweetness of the cornbread and light molasses-based vinaigrette. The dish was well complemented by the light, almost fruity Pierre Sparr Pinot Noir Carneros that it was paired with.
Finally, as Stitt prepared the Bourbon Panna Cotta that was to be the dessert for the midday feast, the two fielded questions from the audience ranging from pest management to kitchen techniques. There were many queries, in fact, for the duo had developed a nice rapport with the spectators and the atmosphere was very comfortable. (Our wineglasses had been continuously refilled during the program, too -- that also might account for the very congenial ambiance!)
When the panna cotta was served, Stitt complained that the portions presented to us were a little too lightly colored -- he said he liked to see the custard just a little darker, but I had no complaints. The creamy concoction was sweet, but not overpowering, and rich, with just a hint of the bourbon used to flavor it. Even better were the two fresh pecan shortbread cookies that were served on the side -- flaky, buttery and crisp, I would have been satisfied with a whole plate of the cookies! The Cremant Rose served with the dessert was a refreshing, sparkling and very pink wine made from 100 percent pinot noir grapes. Some might have preferred a sweeter pairing, but I enjoyed this light, rather dry accompaniment -- a fine ending to a fine meal.
As we lingered over the last of our wine (no one seemed to anxious to head back out into the hot Florida sun), I looked at the goodie bag I'd been given upon entering the Odyssey. It contained a cookbook based on the PBS Chefs A'Field series, as well as the show's complete second season on a three-disk DVD set. (Unfortunately, the Stitt/Dean episode is not included in Season Two of the show -- they were featured in the series' first season.)
So, was the two-hour program worth the new and improved $135 price tag? I guess I'd have to say "almost." It was a very nice lunch with very nice wines in a very nice setting. Is "very nice" worth $135? You do have the chance to talk with and watch a professional chef work and hear him (or her) expound on philosophies of cooking. And the program can definitely help you gain some insight as to what goes into developing interesting and delicious dishes and wine pairings based on regional availability. I imagine that the guest chef could make or break your experience -- I was lucky that Frank Stitt was extremely personable and comfortable in front of an audience, but a less forthcoming chef might lead to a less enjoyable program. In the end, I think that $135 is rather steep, even given that you received a DVD set and cookbook. For that money you could attend two or three of the three-course Food and Wine Pairing programs, which are usually very informative and entertaining, so I'd have to say that Chefs A'Field might be too far afield for me in the future.