DAY IN THE LIFE: Top Chef Toques & A Really Goode Time

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This is the first in a series of behind-the-scenes articles that explore what it's like to be a wine writer.  I promise to deliver plenty of juicy details, insider tidbits and mouthwatering descriptors - so grab a glass and settle in.

By Courtney Cochran
Twitter: @HipTastesMaven

hardy-wallace-murphy-goode.jpgThe first invite - which arrived via tweet, of course - came through over the weekend.  Hardy Wallace, Murphy Goode Winery's "Wine Country Lifestyle Correspondent" - who was selected for the glamorous gig (6 months, $60,000, and free accommodations in wine country, all in exchange for coverage of said adventures via social media) - had sent me a direct message one recent Sunday asking if I'd like to join him and two of this season's Top Chef hopefuls for an intimate BBQ in wine country. I couldn't, it killed me to answer, on account of teaching a wine class til the wee hours the night of the invite, but I told Hardy that I'd gladly take a raincheck. And so when a second invite came through to attend a similar event the following night, I knew I couldn't refuse.

After all, these tempting invites were coming from Hardy himself, the undisputed cool kid of wine media at this very moment (and who I'd somehow managed to befriend on Twitter). Thus, a Healdsburg hotel reservation later, I had accepted Hardy's invite for the upcoming Sonoma soirée and was mentally preparing for what I was sure would be an unforgettable evening.

Click here to watch a short video I shot of Hardy and the top toques!

Decisions, Decisions
The life of a wine writer, it bears noting, is positively bloated with invites to so many wine country picnics, passport weekends, winemaker interviews ("exclusive!"), harvest updates and the like that it's physically impossible to attend even a quarter of the activities with which I'm tempted. I could, I estimate, be "wined and dined" in wine country at least five days a week covering such activities - the result of which would be that I'd no longer fit into any of my clothes nor would I have time to actually write about the activities upon arriving back home!& So after the euphoria that accompanies first becoming a wine writer ebbed, I quickly realized that for the sake of my waistline as well as my sanity (not to mention my ability to meet deadlines), I would have to choose very carefully which wine country invites to accept going forward.

And so: Generally speaking, I apply the "ooh factor" analysis to invites that come my way, electing to attend only those activities that strike me as particularly fabulous. Such was the case with a recent luncheon I attended with Margrit Mondavi, Robert's lively widow, at the Mondavi estate in Napa (which was beyond lovely and included a tour by Margrit showcasing the prolific artwork on the property, about which I'd never learned). The method is not foolproof, however: Sometimes I misjudge opportunities and wind up missing out on something incredible. Such was the case with another recent invite to attend a book signing and lunch at Coppola's Rubicon Estate in Napa; "Ahem, I sat next to Francis Ford Coppola" was the way a wine writer friend described the event to me afterwards (the invite said nothing about the man himself being present). Um, excuse me?! And so, not wanting to feel the sort of post-event regret that accompanied that bomb again, I agreed to attend Hardy's Top Chef culinary affair with all the eagerness that comes with knowing I just might experience something truly spectacular.

That, and I didn't want to be saddled with journalist's regret again so soon.

topchefs.jpgHardy's Event: Top Food & Goode Wine
I arrived at Relish Culinary in Healdsburg - the spot for Hardy's aforementioned top toque affair - just before we sat down to dinner. The Really Goode Job recipient greeted me with more enthusiasm than I'm accustomed to being shown (I recall there was an emphatic pumping of my fist), and quickly introduced me to his star sidekicks for the evening, Eli Kirshtein and Kevin Gillespie of the current season's Top Chef Las Vegas on Bravo. Between Kevin's abundant tattoos and Eli's hipster-chic, dark rimmed glasses, I knew I was in the presence of a couple of exceptionally cool culinary wunderkinds - and immediately became still more excited for the feast they were about to serve up.

The setting at Relish was charming and inviting, the lushly lit spot outfitted with uniformed servers standing at attention behind two long tables set for an intimate group of just over a dozen of us. Made up of local food and wine personalities and industry types, it was a gregarious group - to say the least - a fact made still more apparent as the wine began flowing shortly after we sat down. With verbal tasting notes furnished by Murphy Goode winemaker David Ready, Jr., the evening's vinous component got off to a colorful start - though the real treat came in the frank, funny and totally informed descriptions of the cuisine courtesy Eli and Kevin throughout the evening. To wit, I loved Eli's description of the chefs' varying styles when noted that "Kevin's a little bit country, and I'm a little bit rock 'n roll" - a descriptor that shed light on the different choices the Atlanta-based chefs made throughout the evening.

Culinary Creativity
Highlights of the evening included the inventive Surf 'n Turf starter, comprised of Tomales Bay oysters, beets, fresh radishes and house-churned butter; as well as the octopus, watermelon and lemon vinegar course (ably paired with 2008 Murphy Goode The Deuce Sauvignon Blanc). But, alas, it was the duck, foie gras, sunchoke and hibiscus course that blew everything else away (along with the rest of my appetite), matching decadently flavorful and tender duck meat with the hedonistic richness that is seared foie gras. Though I can't recall with absolute clarity, I'm pretty sure the noise level in the room dropped during that course - and that course alone - evidence of the respect and attention such a double serving of fabulousness deserves.

When it was all over the whole gang poured out of Relish and headed over two blocks to Willi's Seafood & Raw Bar for après-feast cocktails and banter. It was here that I finally got some one-on-one time with the top chefs themselves, and must say they were delightfully (I can't say surprisingly, because their personas project as much) down-to-earth. The question of whether I needed another cocktail or not at that point is still up for debate, but the splendor of the evening and the stellar culinary efforts served up were anything but. So glad I went.

Merci, Hardy.

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