Relais & Chateaux's Fifth-Annual GourmetFest Comes To Carmel-By-The-Sea

Relais & Chateaux is an association of more than 500 hotels and restaurants in 60 countries, and showing guests the "art of living" is its raison d'être. More than twenty R&C chefs, sommeliers, and affiliated winemakers gathered for the fifth annual GourmentFest at L'Auberge Carmel and Hotel La Playa Carmel from March 15 to 18 to showcase the best of the best in food and wine over a four day epic epicurean journey.

The kickoff to the long weekend began with the GourmetFest Welcome Party, where my fellow diners and I had the opportunity to sample signature dishes by world class R&C chefs including phenom Joshua Skenes of Michelin three-starred Saison San Fransico, two-star chef Kyle Connaughton of Single Thread Farms, and Carmel's own Executive Chef Justin Cogley of Aubergine, to name but a few. Upon check-in we were handed a glass of Ruinart champagne to start the night off with a bubbly bang. Dishes were paired with wines from prestigious estates including Antinori, Domaine JL Chave, Colgin, Chappellet, and Weingut Künstler. Craft beer and spirit producers were also featured at stations. My favorite dish was by Boston powerhouse Chef Barbara Lynch of Menton: Daube de Boeuf a la Niçoise – beef cheeks, Taggiasca olives, potato, and haricot vert.

Cooking demonstrations are featured on two of the days and I was lucky to attend the Ment'Or* demo with James Beard award-winning Chef Charles Phan of legendary The Slanted Door. Whilst cooking his Vietnamese inspired shrimp stir-fry live in the outdoor state-of-the-art Gaggenau kitchen, he regaled us with tales of growing up as an immigrant cooking at home with family. He was always an adventurous eater and as he set out on his path to becoming a chef he discovered that crucial to any cuisine is procuring fresh ingredients that form the base of any successful dish. We learned that the key to making a tasty stir-fry is to layer the cooking of the ingredients – cook the protein (whether shrimp, beef, chicken or tofu) for a bit and put aside, then cook the vegetables that take a bit of time, adding stock when needed and cover to steam to speed up the process, then put all the ingredients back together and make sure the sauce covers it all nicely to build the flavor. Afterwards we were invited to taste the dish and he was available to sign copies of his book, The Slanted Door: Modern Vietnamese Food.

Following the cooking demo, I attended the four-course Ment'Or seated lunch. Again Ruinart started the party with a glass of their Blanc de Blancs, while the first course of wild mendocino uni, cucumber, spicy avocado, and cilantro sauce by Charles Phan was paired with a 2015 Künstler riesling. Joshua Drage from The Ranch at Rock Creek followed with my favorite dish of the entire festival, a smoked sturgeon potato cake with cured char roe vinaigrette and Yukon potato mayonnaise. It was simply sublime, and when I think about it now I can still recall the perfect combination of tastes, texture, and refinement of the dish. It was paired with a 2013 Au Bon Climat chardonnay that added a hint of buttery richness to the dish. Nathan Rich of Twin Farms represented well with his beautiful dish of duck with soy mushrooms, carrots, young vegetables, black garlic, foie gras and wine shallots. The pairing was with the lovely 2014 Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir Knox Alexander. Last, but certainly not least, Derek Poirier of Valrhona wowed us with his dessert "Mauritius" – Valrhona blonde chocolate, muscovado, bourbon and tropical fruits.

Friday night's meal of the GourmetFest was the indomitable Plantin Black Truffle & Black River Truffle Dinner. The soup starter by Barbara Lynch was a buttery concoction of Babette's butter, shellfish, Black River caviar, milk, and honey paired with a spirited 2013 Tablas Creek Blanc. Next up on the five-course dinner was Lisa Goodwin-Allen and Nigel Haworth's outstanding roasted scallop in an oyster broth with Black River caviar (above) paired with the Morlet Family Chardonnay Coup de Coeur. Course three was a grand and hearty dish of suckling pig with Quebec foie gras, wild rose berry and oyster thief by Francis Wolf paired with a 2013 Calera Pinot Noir 'Jensen'. I was almost full at this point but eagerly awaiting the next dish, as I knew it was going to be a hit when I saw it come out of the kitchen: Patrick Kriss of Alo Restaurant's roasted lamb loin with turnip, spinach, and black truffle jus, paired nicely with Duckhorn Vineyards 2013 red blend. Dessert by Christopher Wilson of Twin Farms was a whimsical but seriously decadent black truffle snow, with puffed amaranth, manjari cremeux, and gold painted hazelnuts that had me wanting to lick the plate when I was done. From start to finish it was an outstanding culinary evening.

Saturday night was the Grand Finale dinner. Six incredible courses by world-class, talented chefs (and their teams) worked in unison to satisfy 150 guests with discerning palettes. A highlight for me was stealing into the kitchen to watch the art of plating. As each course was finalized, the cadre of chefs aided one another in replicating the example dish to emulate the vision of the chef. Quiet but frenetic teamwork behind the swinging kitchen doors resulted in every diner receiving a beautiful and delectable course.

Newcomer to the GourmetFest, Patricia Gamez of Royal Blues Hotel, kicked off the dinner with a kickass scallop and uni tartar, kumquat, sea bean crisp, radish dish paired with the 2016 Künstler 'Hochheimer Hölle' Reisling G.G. which didn't disappoint. Next up was Francis Wolf of Le Hatley at Manoir Hovey. His eye-pleasing spot prawn, root vegetables, lingonberry, and caviar dish (top) was delicious and was paired with a bold 2015 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay 'Los Alamos' Historic. Third in line was AJ Buchanio of Magee Homestead. Morels, sweet onion, and oca tuber came together into a delightful dish reflecting the affable personality of the chef. Rock star executive chef Lisa Goodwin-Allen and ambassador of Northcote Nigel Haworth banged out one hell of an earthy, interestingly plated, and phenomenal dish of squab, barley, beetroot, and hibiscus curry paired with a 2016 Pax Syrah 'Castelli-Knight Ranch.' Consistently brilliant, Justin Cogley of Aubergine provided the real meat of the evening with his Wagyu short rib, cauliflower, and black truffle (above) paired with a full-bodied 2014 Lancaster Estate Cabernet Sauvingnon. Pastry Chef Yulanda Santos of Aubergine was the icing on the cake of a perfect the evening with an extraordinary Valrhona Opalys white chocolate, rhubarb, apple, almond dish that was as gorgeous as it was tasty.

I attended two very distinct wine tastings during the GourmetFest. One was The Grandeur of Solaia, a tasting with Alessia Antinori of Marchesi Antinori and panelists, the legendary winemaker and Sommelier Larry Stone of Lungua Franca and Mark Bright, wine director and Partner of Saison. We tasted the following vintages of Solaia: 2013, 2009, 2006, 2004, 2003, 1999, 1998, 1997 (magnum).

Alessia's father became president of Antinori in the late 1960s and was an important figure in the winemaking business from the region because he focused on Classico Chianti and was a very open-minded winemaker. According to Alessia, he was the first Italian winemaker to fall in love with Napa Valley and bought property there. Although they are a traditional wine making family and 26 generations have been involved in the business, they are also innovative winemakers. Sangiovese is her favorite grape variety; "It is challenging because it produces tannic, closed wines so we blend to soften it and give it elegance. It is very food driven. It likes to be paired with soul food in general." She said. The name Solaia ("Sun in the Courtyard") comes from one of their houses in the vineyards where sun is always in the courtyard. Stone commented that the 2013, while young, has a beautiful expression, not much presence of the Sangiovese so far but will be getting better and better as time goes on. The 1998 was one of Alessia's favorites even though it "lives in the shadows of the '97. But it's amazing and has great structure," she said. The sentiments about the '97 were echoed by Bright, who also noted that the 1998 has a strong following.

The second tasting was actually a very unique Champagne experience, dubbed The Music of Krug Champagne. As effervescent as the champagne he makes, Olivier Krug shared his thoughts about the vintages we tasted and his new philosophy that champagne is best enjoyed with music. He paired the seven tastings (2003 Krug Mesnil, 2004, 2003 Grand Cuvée 160th edition, 2003 Grand Cuvée 159th edition, Krug Rosé 21st edition, Krug Rosé Magnum 18th edition) with various tracks ranging from classical to modern to rock, pausing between the classifications to savor each individual moment. Olivier suggests you download the free Krug app which includes musical pairings for their champagnes and cheekily noted that, "It's the only free thing at Krug."

When asked what the best bottle he'd ever opened way, he didn't hesitate for a second. "1915," he said. "My grandmother made it during the war since the men were all gone. I feel a bit guilty experiencing it for myself and I cannot share because there is no more, but really it was a special moment for me."

A team of five on the tasting committee tastes wine from each of the 250 plots. They do it twice, which takes a long time, but the proof is in the results.

During the course of the four days and nights, outstanding breads and coffee were served at every meal. The hard-to-resist breads were by Michelle Rizzolo of Big Sur Bakery and the coffee was courtesy of Adam Paige of illy caffè of North America. Water was bottled "on-site" by Nordaq Fresh.

*Ment'Or is a leading nonprofit organization devoted to inspiring culinary excellence in young professionals and preserving the traditions and quality of cuisine in America. Part of the proceeds from the online auction during GourmetFest went to Ment'Or.

The accommodations and events attended at GourmetFest were provided at no cost to the writer.