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International Food & Wine Festival
September 30 - November 13, 2011
First Bites Opening Reception
- 7:05 Culinary Demonstration
Chef's Showcase with Alisa Malavenda
Himalyan Salt Slabs with Beef Satay and Ahi Tuna
- 8:00 Meet and Greet with Vern Yip
HGTV Design Star/HGTV Urban Oasis
The Stockpot Shop
- 7:25 Beverage Seminar
The Vineyard with Marilyn Vogel, Banfi Wines
Debut of Disney Exclusive Wines
- 7:55 p.m. Authentic Taste with babycakesNYC
Spotlight Stage with Emily Woesthoff
- 8:05 Culinary Demonstration
Chef's Showcase with Keegan Gerhard
- 8:25 p.m. Beverage Seminar
The Vineyard with Brandon Seager
Red Newt Cellars (New York)
- 9:00 p.m. Taylor Dayne Performance
Seasons of the Vine and HGTV's Let's Start the Party films running continuously
Strolling La Nouba performers from Cirque du Soleil
Festival Center Merchandise and Wines available for purchase at the Stockpot Shop and The Cellar
Schmidt , Festival
Poster Artist, painting in Tasteful Chapters
Linda Bean's Lobster Claw Cuddler® with Drawn Butter
Linda Bean's Perfect Maine Lobster Roll
Seared Sea Scallop with Kumara-Red Curry Puree and Apple Radish Salad
Shrimp on the Barbie with Pepper Berry Citrus Glaze
Grilled Lamb Chop with Potato-Goat Cheese Salad and Shiraz Reduction
Ropa Vieja (braised beef) with White Rice
Jerk-spiced Chicken Drumstick with Mango Salsa
Brazil's National Dish - Feijoada (a Black Bean and Pork Stew)
Linguica Sausage with Onions, Peppers and Olives $4.00
Seared Filet of Beef with smashed Sweet Potatoes and Braai Sauce
Bunny Chow (Vegetable Curry served in a Bread Loaf)
Tuna Poke with Seaweed Salad and Lotus Root Chips
Kalua Pork Slider with Sweet and Sour Dole Pineapple Chutney and Spicy Mayonnaise
Swedish Meatballs with Lingonberries
Kerrygold Cheese Selection (Aged-Irish Cheddar, Dubliner and Ivernia Cheese) with Apple Chutney and Brown Bread
Desserts & Champagne
White Chocolate Macadamia Mousse with Dark Chocolate Pearls
Tres Leches Verrine
Hops and Barley
Pumpkin Mousse with Ocean Spray Craisins and Orange Sauce
Rice Pudding with Driscoll's® Only The Finest Berries™
Tubes of Colorful Candies
Assorted Fresh Baked Cookies
Crisped Rice Treats
Warm Funnel Cake Bread Pudding
with Strawberry Sauce, Chocolate Sauce and Powdered Sugar
Assorted Flavors of Mini Cookie Sandwiches
Assorted Flavors of Mini Doughnuts
Twinings Premium Tea Stations
featuring Pumpkin Chai, Almond Chai and Hazelnut Chai
Full Premium Bars and Intermissions Cafe Open
Bok Se Ju
Ca' Bolani Pinot Grigio
Casa Vinicola Zonin Prosecco
Castello d'Albola Chianti Classico
Caymus Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Charm Soon Soju
Conundrum, California White Table Wine
Dr. L. Riesling
KookSoonDang Draft Makkoli
Mer Soleil Chardonnay Silver
Myung Jak Bokbunjajoo
Red Newt Cellars Circle Riesling, Dry Riesling, Semi Dry Riesling
Robert Weil Riesling Trocken
Sogno d'Italia Chianti DOCG
Sogno d'Italia Pinot Grigio Toscana
Villa Wolf Pinot Gris
crave - Chocolate Chili, Chocolate Mint, Chocolate Cherry Cordials
Moet Imperial, Moet Rose Imperial, Moet Ice Imperial
Thatcher's Organic Liqueurs: Blood Orange, Yum Berry, Pomegranate
and Apple Ginger with Sparkling
Samuel Adams Beer
For the second consecutive year, Epcot's International Food and Wine Festival launched with a pre-opening "sneak preview" of the 45 days to come, called the "First Bites" Opening Reception. Held in the Festival Center (also known as the old Wonders of Life pavilion to us Disney long-timers) the Thursday before the Festival's official September 30 start date, the evening was billed as a premium event ($175 per person plus tax) that would offer a little bit of everything: some samples of the foods and beverages that can be found in the "international marketplaces" around World Showcase, abbreviated culinary demos and beverage seminars, access to festival merchandise, and live entertainment.
While I was less than thrilled with my experience at last year's First Bites Reception (see my review HERE), I decided to give it another chance -- particularly since there was to be no other big evening event during the Festival's opening weekend when I was in town. (Both of the Festival's other grand tasting events, Party for the Senses and the 3D Disney's Dessert Discovery, were not beginning their runs until the following weekend, long after I had returned home.)
I arrived at the Festival Center around 6 p.m. and was cheerfully checked in and wrist-banded by the cast members stationed on the walkway leading up to the building. I was expecting to be greeted with a cocktail on that hot and humid evening, as we had been the year before, but, no... we were left to wait outside, withering until we were eventually let in to the cool of the pavilion.
THERE were the cocktails! Servers were waiting for us just after we entered, but alas, I didn't manage to snag one -- the last server left with an empty tray just before I could reach out, and by the time another had returned I had been swept further into the pavilion by the initial rush of the crowd (which, according to event organizers, numbered around 250ish, up 100 or so from last year).
The pavilion was set up pretty much as it had been in 2010 -- plenty of tables, both low and cocktail, food stations around the main path. One notable difference was that there were more, and more accessible, beverage stations -- I recall that last year I had to go hunting if I wanted a drink of water or a wine refill, but this year the beverages were located adjacent to the foods, similar to the set-up at Party for the Senses. There also seemed to be more foods available this year -- not that I had the chance to eat any more, though. More on that later.
As with last year's inaugural First Bites, this reception was hosted by Pam Smith, who serves as MC for most of the festival's special events, and pastry chef and Food Network star Keegan Gerhard. After about 15 minutes or so of circulating through the pavilion, an announcement was made that there would be an opening toast. The problem was, I didn't catch where that was to be, and when I finally found that it was back at the entrance of the pavilion, I had completely missed it -- I had been way on the opposite side of the building, and it happened so fast it was over before I could get there.
After about 10 minutes of browsing around the food stations, I decided to make my way over the Chef's Showcase area, where the first demonstration was giong to be held. En route, I passed by the display for an array of new chocolate liqueurs by the DeKuyper family called "crave." The representative there convinced me that I really HAD to try it, and so I did. They have three flavors: chocolate cherry, chocolate mint, and chocolate chili. I tried the latter two, and yum! The mint was like a refreshing but liquid peppermint patty, while the chili had a nice hint of heat -- not too overpowering, just enough to make you think, "Wow!" I was told these liqueurs won't be available in the general marketplace for another year or so, so this was truly a nice little "sneak peek" for First Bites attendees.
The first demo of the night was an "Authentic Taste" presented by Laura Castelli and Chef Alisa Malavenda of Primordial Ocean Salt Himalaya (POSH), 100% Natural Himalaya Salt and Saltware. I know, sounds intriguing, right? It really was, and the two made a very nice case for "fooding your salt" (as opposed to salting your food), by presenting and even cooking your food items on tableware made of solid salt blocks. They served samples of Ahi Tuna and Beef Satay to illustrate their point, and we even were encouraged to take our salt slabs home with us. (I did!)
While this talk was going on, HGTV's Vern Yip was conducting a meet and greet in The Stockpot Shop area of the pavilion, but I opted instead to go directly from the Chef's Showcase over to the Vineyard, where the Beverage Seminar with Banfi Wines was already underway. Marilyn Vogel of Banfi introduced two new wines made exclusively for Disney, under the label "Sogno d'Italia" (or "Dream of Italy"). The chianti and pinot grigio are both now selling by the glass at the Enoteca Castello wine shop in the Italy pavilion and will eventually be introduced at several Disney restaurants around the resort. As a red wine lover, it's no surprised that I preferred the chianti over the pinot grigio, but still it was nice to have the chance to sample them both.
From this tasting, I rushed around to the front of the pavilion to the Spotlight Stage, where babycakesNYC manager Emily Woesthoff was giving a talk on her Downtown Disney bakery, which features vegan, gluten-free goodies that contain no refined sugar. I scooted out of her presentation (but not before I sampled the brownie bite that was on offer!) to head back over to the Chef's Showplace to catch the 7:50 culinary demo by Chef Keegan Gerhard. Sadly, Gerhard's popcorn panna cotta hadn't set properly, but he was as entertaining as ever to watch and, even though he wasn't doing a full demonstration, he ran over his allotted time.
As you can see, trying to attend all of the demos left little time to try the foods and beverages at the cooking stations. Even though I skipped the last beverage seminar by Brandon Seager of Red Newt Cellars, I never did get the chance to try more than half of the food items available, much less look at the merchandise or wine cellar. There simply was no way to do it all -- although I did manage a quick pose with one of the strolling La Nouba performers.
At about 8:40, attendees were pointed in the direction of the Vineyard, where singer Taylor Dayne, who was the operning performer for the "Eat to the Beat" concert series, took the stage to perform a 15-minute set. Dayne is a strong performer, and was in fine voice (though, if memory serves me right she performed nearly the exact same set as she did last year), ending with what's probably her most popular hit, "Tell It to My Heart."
Promptly at 9 p.m., we were gently urged to take our leave of the event. The "Jammin' Chefs", the culinarily-inspired alter egos of Epcot's percussion ensemble, The Jammitors, serenaded us as we shuffled toward the exit, and were given our parting gift bags: an etched Schott wine glass the festival's logo, a small bag of Werther's caramel-coated popcorn, a collection of Twining's specialty teas, a liter bottle of Rademacher beer, two types of European chocolates, and a Marketplace Passport.
So, now to answer the $175 question: Was it worth it?
As I said last year, clearly for some it was. About half of the people I spoke with, both that night and in the following few days, said that they had really enjoyed themselves and that they would definitely attend again next year if a First Bites Reception is offered. They enjoyed the variety of and unlimited access to the foods and beverages available. They said the low number of guests meant shorter lines and no crowding around the stations, and that they were guaranteed a seat. I can't argue with any of that.
But I have to admit that my sympathies align a little more closely with those who felt that they did not get their money's worth. (And, please note for the record, while some members of the media were invited guests of Disney at this event, I actually paid my own way.) The event is undeniably well-done, and it mostly delivers on its promise to provide you with a sample, a "first bite", of just about everything that the Food and Wine Festival has to offer. There's plenty to do and see -- as I pointed out above, there was almost TOO much, to the point that you actually don't have enough time to do everything. Still, for me, the event just doesn't seem special enough to warrant the hefty price tag.
Maybe it's the space. The Festival Center doesn't have much ambience, even decorated as it is with the nice, new sets supplied by event sponsor HGTV. And even though the number of attendees is limited, it doesn't feel like an intimate gathering to me. Everything's spread out, and the event lacks the energy that a bigger crowd generates.
Or maybe it's the way the evening is structured. While I found everything seemed to flow much better this year, the schedule still didn't allow me enough time. If I listened to the presentation on Himalayan saltware, I didn't have enough time to browse the food stations. If I had waited in line to meet and greet with HGTV's Vern Yip, I would have missed Keegan Gerhard. Yes, I realize it's all about choices, but since I paid $175, I wanted to do as much as I could, and the format just doesn't allow that. In fact, when I look at the evening's menu, I find that I only really sampled four items and two beverages, in addition to the few tastes I tried as part of the culinary demos.
So that brings me back to the question, "Was it worth it?"
As much as I would like to say yes, I have to say that, in my opinion, it wasn't. I'd rather save my money for the Party for the Senses -- a much larger event, true, but one that somehow generates an excitement and special feeling that First Bites just can't seem to capture.
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The First Bites Reception is only offered once during Epcot's 16th Annual International Food and Wine Festival, but the festival itself runs daily with many other events now through November 13, 2011. Admission to the festival is included with your park admission, but there are several dining events that are an additional charge. To make reservations for events such as Party for the Senses, contact 407-WDW-FEST. Some reservations can also be made online. Visit Disney's official site at www.disneyworld.com/foodandwine
For additional coverage of this year's Food and Wine Festival, be sure to visit our friends over at the Disney Food Blog.