Top chefs at Wine & Food Festival

As I drove down I-5 on a rainy Saturday morning in November toward Seaport Village where the San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival was being held, I was contemplating some different story angles.
My thought was to embed myself with the judges as they went through the process of picking winners in several categories. This would be facilitated through my friend and frequent dining companion Chef Michael Zonfrilli, who was among the judges, a veritable who’s who of top San Diego culinary talent. The head chef/judge agreed to let me tag along so my story line was set and I was good to go.
Fifteen minutes later, I overheard one of the judges had gone back to her hotel room to warm up and was not in place for the start of the judging, which was required. My first thought was what an unfortunate thing to do, leave a judging opportunity with $50,000 in prize money on the line because of the cold. Dress for the weather right? 
That thought was quickly interrupted by one of the chef’s pointing in my direction, saying “Hey, you are a food writer, want to step in as a judge?” I don’t even think I responded when he said “Good, go with this group,” which included Chef Zonfrilli. Right on, not only am I embedded with the judges, I’m one of them now, controlling the destiny of several San Diego restaurants. Visions of future gigs guest judging on “Iron Chef” were flying through my head, a far cry from the reality of judging in the pouring rain but a nice little fantasy nonetheless.
With that, I joined Chef Zonfrilli, Chef Dustin Homen, the executive sous chef at Barona Resort & Casino, and culinary student Marcy Newsome, who acted as our runner. From what I heard, the missing judge showed up shortly after we left and proceeded to throw a hissy fit, in French, which probably made it even more dramatic.
Our scorecards were based on a point system and covered everything from presentation, height, originality, unique ingredients, complexity, innovative techniques, taste, set up on time and serving vessel to name a few. Judging was not taken lightly and I had a few questions on some of the criteria but once I got that figured out I was good to go.
Some of the culinary highlights of the experience included a duck confit, spinach and pear salad with Dijon-rosemary vinaigrette, topped with a duck fat fried tater tot crouton from Chef Rich Sweeney at R-Gang Eatery in North Park. This was an amazing concoction, even at 10 a.m.
R-Gang was a finalist with this innovative dish. Note to food trend followers, look for gourmet tater tots to be popping up on menus everywhere. A super fresh shrimp ceviche from El Vitral would have been better served on a hot summer day but it was full of flavor. They knew the weather forecasted though so it was an odd choice. 
We also judged Blue Point Costal Cuisine, which won the meat category. Chef Daniel Barron created a Wagyu Beef short rib surf n turf with dehydrated crispy lobster puff, and sea urchin emulsion squeezed out of a pipette, and lobster tater tot (again with the tater tots). This dish was “Iron Chef” worthy.
California Crepes was part of our mix also and it was almost as if they had accepted their fate, serving up mini crepes that, as Chef Zonfrilli put it, were “straight out of the can lameness.”
While Kitchen 1540 was not on our list, I have to mention the crazy inventive Turducken Nuggets with potato air, cranberry gelèe and foie gras gravy that Chef Paul McCabe was dishing out. It was one of the few North County eateries represented but it earned Kitchen 1540 second place overall. 
The Grand Prize Winner of the 2010 “Chef of the Fest” Competition was Chef Robert Ruiz of Harney Sushi for his “Cunning Lengua” — Sapporro-style braised Newport beef tongue with Fallbrook Fuyu persimmon and roasted Oregon Coast matsutake, garnished with chili Daikon-Shoga, 3D demi-glauce and micro shiso. Wow, that’s a mouthful, and a delightful mouthful it was.
The whole experience was very memorable and yes, the rain let up and the lines were long at most every booth. This is a great event and I would encourage every food enthusiast to check it out next year.
The eighth annual San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival will take place Nov. 16 to Nov. 20, 2011. For more information, visit worldofwineevents.com.

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