All week I was so excited to drive two hours from Los Angeles to the Palm Desert Food & Wine James Beard Gourmet Luncheon with my friend Toni. We drove in her snazzy Prius along the 210 and 10 freeways to get there before 11:30 a.m. With rain clouds looming ahead, we beat the rain just in time and had a few minutes to shop at the Coachella Valley’s famed The Gardens on El Paseo before the gates opened to the event.
Who knew the rooftop parking structure of the The Gardens on El Paseo, could turn into an elegant culinary and fashion show affair. Many Coachella Valley residents dressed up for the “Modern Pairings” James Beard Luncheon featuring celebrity superstar chefs Suzanne Tracht (Jar in LA), Valerie Gordon (Valerie Confections in LA), Food Network’s darling Cat Cora (Cat Cora’s Kitchen in airports) and television personality, chef and restauranteur Gale Gand.
We were encouraged to grab a flute of sparkling brut with fresh raspberries to kick-off the luncheon. The friendly Killian served us champagne and later all of the wines paired with the multi-course lunch. We moved inside an elegantly decorated Ferguson Better Built tent, just in time. Those ominous clouds hovering above us, opened up and large rain drops fell to the ground.
Initially I had a reserved seat in row CC and my friend’s ticket was for a seat in row DD. The white canvas tent could not withstand the pelting of the heavy rain, and soon I noticed a stream of water dripping right behind me. I looked at Toni and noticed a steady drip at her seat too.
As I approached a kind PDFW staff member about our situation, she encouraged us to find an empty seat away from the leaks. I spotted a few empty seats in the front row and near the live music playing by Michael Holmes Jazz Trio.
Killian was happy to have us in her section. I learned these seats were reserved for VIPs of the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa. They were one of the partners for this three-day event. We told her we were prepared to find another empty space, if they arrived. Killian encouraged us to stay put and promised to take good care of us.
Toni and I sipped a glass of Australian William Hardy Chardonnay, while listening the three piece band play “Come Fly With Me,” while waiting for our first course of an English Pea Puree prepared by Suzanne Tracht. The white wine offered a big bouquet of peach and melon, with a nuttiness and smooth creamy finish. It was a vibrant Chardonnay with a slightly citrus essence.
Our First Course arrived while Tracht demonstrated how to make English Pea Puree with sliced Spring radish and a sprinkling of Humboldt fog cheese. We were to spoon this onto a crunchy crostini.
Known for her divine pot roast, chef Suzanne Tracht opened her restaurant Jar in Los Angeles with chef de cuisines Preech Narkthong in 2001. She has been named “Best New Chef” by Food & Wine magazine and appears on television often for her culinary expertise. She gives back to the community by donating money and time into community food and resources programs.
What a perfect start, even if the rain was dripping into the venue and the Masters of Ceremonies had to grab an umbrella to continue on with the program.
Second Course: Next was a demonstration on making a Spring salad by confectionary queen Valerie Gordon. I was surprised she would be making the salad and not dessert course, because she is known for her restaurants in Los Angeles and for her cakes, pastries and artisanal chocolates at Grand Central Market. Her chocolates are so good that she has starred on the Cooking Channel’s Unique Eats, Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate, and Bravo’s Top Chef Just Desserts. She had a high school student named Karen as her assistant up on the stage.
Gordon demonstrated how she made the Little Gem salad with a lemon confit, blanched & pickled asparagus, sliced avocado with a garlic creme fraiche vinaigrette. We learned to never toss a salad with tongs, “It breaks the lettuce,” Gordon said. “Toss with your hands.” This course was paired with a red Australian Flegenheimer Paisant Grenache-McLaren Vale. Wine Advocate gave this wine a .91 points for its silky tannins, raspberry jelly and slightly peppery bouquet. The grapes are grown in deep rich clay with a location just a few miles from the sea.
I’ve heard about Celebrity Chef Cat Cora, but have never seen her in person. This petite gal has an effervescent personality. She lit up the stage with her assistant and student Jessica Rodriguez.
While demonstrating how to prepare a sticky glaze Satsuma-habanero sauce for the wild Troll King salmon, Cora, this mother of four, engaged the audience about growing up in Mississippi, studying at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, and where her Cat Cora’s Kitchens are in various airports around the U.S. Next time I am flying into San Francisco, Houston, Salt Lake City or Atlanta, I must stop for a visit.
We learned to saute the salmon over high heat at 400 degrees for 3 to 4 minutes to get that medium rare filet cooked beautifully. Fortunately we all received a booklet with a recipe of each course, so I didn’t have to take copious notes. I will make this dish for my family dinner soon. It was delicious.
Cat appears regularly on the Food Network, NBC and Bravo. She wrote – “Cooking as Fast as I Can: A Chef’s Story of Family, Food and Forgiveness.” In 2004, Cat founded Chefs for Humanity, a non-profit that promotes nutritional education and global hunger. She is an American Academy of Chefs Culinary Hall of Fame inductee.
Last Course was prepared by Chicago Chef Hall of Fame and winner of the 2001 James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef – Gale Gand. She is the founding pastry chef and partner of the beloved Chicago restaurant Tru. We learned a lot about this dynamic chef while she demonstrated how to make her elegant, almond ginger tea cake. It was adorned with pink grapefruit creme legere, half a lychee and sugar dusted rose petals.
Here’s what we learned – Gale’s late father Bob Gand was a professional musician. He taught Gale and her brother Gary how to play instruments. As a child, Gale toured all over the United States with her family as the Gand Family Singers.
At the age of 19, while waitressing in a restaurant in Ohio, a line chef didn’t show up to work one day, so Gale was forced into cooking by the owner. “I didn’t choose the occupation of a chef, the restaurant business chose me,” she told the crowd of over 200 guests.
In 1996, Gand was chosen by legendary chef Julia Child to appear on two episodes of the PBS show Baking with Julia. Later she hosted the Food Network series “Sweet Dreams,” the first nationally televised all-dessert show for eight years.
With this last course we sipped a sweet 2012 Grgich Hills, Violetta Harvest, Napa Valley Estate wine. It is a late-harvest wine that offered a remarkable depth of flavors that tickled and lingered in my mouth. A perfect pairing for Gale’s dessert.
Vintners Hall of Fame Inductee Miljenko “Mike” Grgich became an international sensation 40 years ago with his Judgment of Paris award-winning wines. Recently his Mike Grgich’s autobiography “A Glass Full of Miracles,” made its debut.
Talk about timing, by the time the luncheon was over, the rain stopped and we didn’t have to use our umbrella. We took our gift bag filled with Rum Chata, gourmet salts and spices, and a new stadium chair out to the car. It rained off and on throughout the drive back to LA, but hey, we need this rain.
Thanks Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa for your seats. Even though they were just a few rows away from our own, they were dry and the views of the talented chefs and musicians were perfect.
The Palm Desert Food and Wine festival is from April 8 to April 10 with three fun-filled days of gastronomic adventures. To learn more, go to http://www.palmdesertfoodandwine.com