Hottest New Food & Wine Festival In Carmel Celebrates Relais

The Relais & Châteaux brand jumped into the California food & wine festival scene last month with an ambitious plan — three days and nights of non-stop culinary events featuring some of their best chefs and vintners from around the world.  The event was the brainchild of Carmel's David Fink - hotelier, entrepreneur, winemaker and mushroom hunter. He also happens to be the owner of Carmel's popular Hotel L'Auberge, a member of the Relais & Châteaux group.

Culinary highlights from the opening party included Grand Chef Justin Cogley of Aubergine's appetizing Young Chicken, Coastal Herbs, Kombu Infused Jus and Grand Chef Patrick O'Connell of the Inn at Little Washington's Wagyu Beef Stew. Gourmet Fest spirits were high as enthusiastic guests sipped on Moët & Chandon champagnes all weekend which included bubbly from its famous brands: Krug, Ruinart, Dom Pérignon, and Moët & Chandon.

Day two began for me began with an exploration of the wines of Marquis de Laguiche Montrachet with Véronique Drouhin from the Burgundy House of Joseph Drouhin. We tasted eight vintages from the estate including: 1990, 1993, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2010. Next up was The Taste of Italy themed lunch highlights included a moist and tender Pigeon breast and leg with shallots, hazelnuts and coffee by Grand Chef Gaetano Trovato (Arnolfo). It was paired with a dry 2009 Ceretto Barolo Zonchara. Grand Chef Michael Tusk (Quince) knocked it out of the park with his simple, yet elegant green salad with quail eggs, and white asparagus. Another favorite dish was the sumptuous dessert of layers of Strati di Caramello e Caffe by chef Melinda Beebe (Quince), complimented by a sweet and sparkly 2012 Ceretto Moscati d'Asti Vignaioli di Santo Stefano.

The Grand Cru Bordeaux Dinner was held in a gorgeous tented venue with apropos Bordeaux colored linens and full bloom red rose floral decorations. Playing host for the feast was Joel Riddell of the Clear Channel's popular food and wine radio talk show Dining Around.  A welcome toast of Moët & Chandon Rosé Impérial began the evening. Highpoints of the meal included Grand Chef Jason Franey's (Canlis) carrot-curry with fermented wheat berries and goat curd. Chef Franey's dish was served with 2003 Domaine de Chevalier Blanc, Grand Cru Classé de Graves from Pessac-Léognan.

Not usually a lemon dessert fan, I found the light and airy dessert by chef Ron Mendoza (Aubergine) to be lovely and refreshing. His dish of Opalys Ganache, Meyer Lemon, Fennel, and Coriander was accompanied by a 2007 Chateau Guiraud 1er Grand Cru Classé en 1855, Sauternes and was a perfect way to end such a huge gastronomical celebration.

The last night of the Gourmet Fest was a "who's who" of celebrity chefs from the Relais & Châteaux family. Dishes from Justin Cogley, Patrick O'Connell, Michael Tusk, Grand Chef Barbara Lynch (Menton), Grand Chef Jean Michel Lorain (La Côte Saint Jacque), Alan Ramos (Quince) and Carolyn Nugent (Quince) took turns delighting diners with their intricate and stunning plates. My two favorites were Chef Tusk's fancy Fagotelli of rabbit with English peas and black truffle and Chef Lynch's interesting Grimaud Farm duck, Gundi, rosemary and olive.  Special mention must be made of Chef O'Connell's Wagyu beef tongue with pickled root vegetables and Caraway crisp for its complexity and elegant presentation. It was served with a fruity 2003 Dönnhoff Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Spätlese.

Sold out events during the festival included a Wild Mushroom Hunt and Lunch and an exclusive Rarities Wine Tasting Dinner with Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Véronique Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin and Olivier Krug from Champagne Krug. Michelin-three star chefs prepared a 10-course meal to accompany the rare wines that were brought in directly from the Domaine cellars.

The wild mushroom hunt for 30 was lead by area mycologists and guides and was followed by a magnificent luncheon. It began with perfectly seared scallops, Trumper Mushrooms, Maitake Fritter, Celery Root Purée, Chive Butter by chef Carlton Lepine (Santa Lucia Preserve) and was served with local 2012 Sauvignon Blanc from Galante Vineyards.

Next came two dishes by Executive Chef Jacob Leatherman (Triple Creek Ranch): a creamy Foie Gras Crème Brûlée, Citrus Marinated Morels, Dates, Pistachios, Truffle and a complicated, yet unfussy Venisor Heart Tartar, Crispy Oysters, Favas, Speck, Yogurt, Wild Poricini Nage, and Pickled Enokis which was served with a 2010 Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir and a 2001 Galante Red Rose Hill Cabernet Sauvignon.  Like many seated at my table, I feel the most beautiful part of the meal was the dessert by Chef Lepine of Santa Lucia Preserve. It was a Candy Cap Sticky Toffee Pudding with Crème Fraîche Ice Cream, and Toffee Sauce.

David Fink and the team at Relais & Châteaux deserve credit for planning and executing a flawless first run at an ambitious new food and wine event. Partygoers were enthusiastic and left begging for more. If this inaugural event is any indication, next year's event will be sold out quickly.

Although I was a guest of Relais & Châteaux, the opinions expressed in this piece are my own.