“What is that?”
I hear this question a few times from people as I wander about the Newport Beach Wine & Food Festival’s (NBWFF) Grand Tasting on Sunday. The answers differ: Scallops. Lambchops. Sweet potato gnocchi. The question bears repeating with some boundary-stretching dishes, like hand-made lumpia (think Filipino egg rolls) and savory pork donuts (it is what it sounds like).
It’s more than a question. It captures the zeitgeist of the 5th annual festival’s evolution. It was your typical food and drink event when it made its debut at the Newport Beach Civic Center in 2014: You show up, you nibble and sip on a few things, and call it an afternoon. It’s much more than this now. Sure, there’s room for the casual foodie to roam around and have fun, but it’s also a bit of a love letter to the epicurean geek – the kind of people that show up at the gate and already know about lumpia.
It’s also a haven for those amongst us who are celebrity chef groupies. Top Chef alums and renowned culinary luminaries grace the demo stage throughout the day, and none of them turn their makeshift kitchens into ivory towers. Famed chef Hubert Keller weaves his way through the crowd after his presentation, shaking hands and posing for selfies. Two finalists from Top Chef’s most recent season, Joe Sasto and Chris Scott, hang out after their demo, and my wife and I end up talking pasta and spirits with the former, and biscuits and Eagles football with the latter. The presence of celebrity chefs does provide the NBWFF with admitted flash, but it’s a panache that tends to be appreciated for the right reasons. Guests that gather to meet the talent request photos which is to be expected, but they linger to ask questions about the craft of cooking. The chefs respond every time by dispensing nuggets of practical wisdom. These moments never cease in their coolness, and they’ll only get cooler once a person applies the lessons learned into their home kitchen routines.
Even if you remove the celebrity chefs from the equation, you’re still left with an event that richly rewards people that know their stuff about food and drink. There are plenty of rewards scattered about, and not just from locally adored restaurants like Marche Moderne and new buzzworthy places like Terrace by Mix Mix (who dished out the lumpia). Halfway through the event, we spot a table for mega-cult whiskey Whistle Pig standing next to a table for Chateau Montelena. The former’s modern-day reputation amongst the brown liquor-loving hipster set draws a steady line, as it should – the stuff’s delicious. The latter flies a banner behind its kiosk, specifically touting Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay, the bottle of wine that won “best white” in the legendary Judgement of Paris wine competition that thrust Napa Valley onto the world stage. The banner carries substantial gravitas for a wine nerd like me, but it made me wonder: how many others would know? As I approach the gentleman pouring their wines, I know I had to find out.
“Out of the people you’ve served today, how many know why your banner is so important?” I ask. I’m anticipating a low number.
“I’d say about 70 percent,” he replies.
I’m surprised and ultimately relieved. History’s more than just present at NBWFF. It’s appreciated. It also makes the question of “What is that?” more exciting to hear because it’s most likely being asked by those that have a deep appreciation for the bites and sips being served. This sentiment makes the festival a cut above the average food and drink soiree. It already has me excited about 2019’s festivities, too.