"This is not a flashy celebrity chef event," said Tyler Florence at warp speed as he handed out paper plates of savory peach cobbler with smoked ham, whipped lardo, and herbes de Provence biscuit crumbles. One guest was grilling him about an episode of Food Court Wars. Most people were snapping a bazillion photos with their cell phones. His observation was partly right; the only famous chefs—in the starred-on-a-TV-show kind of way—who participated in the SF Chefs Grand Tasting Tent on Friday night were Florence himself and Chris Cosentino of Incanto. But that didn't stop the evening from being a total glamor fest of food and drinks.
Produced by the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, the annual SF Chefs food festival satiated the city with a long weekend of tastings, classes, chef demos, and parties. A portion of proceeds benefited various charities, like The Center for Education About Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), Meals On Wheels of San Francisco, the San Francisco and Marin Food Banks, La Cocina, and the Golden Gate Restaurant Association Scholarship Foundation.
The 5th Anniversary Opening Celebration and Grand Tasting on Friday was hosted inside a massive white tent that took over Union Square. One step inside, and it was as if you'd departed San Francisco for some sort of garden-themed night club. Small trees were scattered throughout, trellised shrubs lined the perimeter, and a DJ pumped house music at medium decibels.
Wearing clingy dresses, colored sports jackets, and the increasingly popular hands-free wine glass holders—doled out on Friday evening by Rhône Valley Wines—guests wandered (and sometimes elbowed) their way from food to booze (to booze to booze) and back to food. General admission cost $140, and folks were getting their money's worth. Drinks exceeded comestibles with a slew of wines from California, Washington, Portugal, and Chile, beers from Anchor Brewing Company and Stella Artois, and hoards of colorful cocktails, prepared by mixologists from Rye and Elixir.
To sponge the spirits, guests nibbled through a pig pen of pork, thanks in part to the National Pork Board which donated a lot of the meat. Incanto, Spruce, and Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch went with charcuterie. Both Long Meadow Ranch and Boxing Room fried chicharrones, while Mission Rock Resort opted for bacon. Seafood scored as the second most popular protein of the night, with raw scallops from Betelnut, stellar smoked salmon from Water Bar and EPIC Roasthouse, and refreshing halibut ceviche from Lolinda.
There was no poultry to be found at all, and only Hi Lo used beef (in the form of BBQ brisket on a bun). One of the standouts of the evening came not from the Bay Area, but from guest chef Al Brown of Depot in Aukland, New Zealand, who roasted a Middle Eastern-spiced lamb shoulder with fried curry leaves and a spiced eggplant jam.
Though vegetable-seekers found plenty of sweet summer corn woven into the night's dishes, vegetarians had to stick with the few, though terrific, dessert options: Absinthe created a roasted white chocolate pudding with tarragon foam and raspberries, and Morimoto Napa set up a horizontal tangle of tree branches, from which protruded a selection of re-imagined American classics on skewers. Choices included peanut butter miso cookies, almond milk chocolate squares, whisky fudge, carrot cupcakes, and translucent plum jellies.
After the last call for alcohol, at about 9:40 p.m., the crowd danced, stumbled, or limped out of the tent into the shock of cool air and traffic, returned to reality.
About the author: From San Francisco to New York and back to San Francisco, Alissa Merksamer is a food adventurer who'll try almost anything once. She's a frequent snacker and seeker of free samples. Check out her blog Glamorous Snacker and follow her on twitter @glamsnack.