Restaurants from around the Coachella Valley serve unlimited samples at the Grand Tastings. Among the delectable offerings: sliders with chips and ahi tuna.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MOLLIE KIMBERLING
Though he has won the prestigious James Beard Award, hosted Food Network shows, and owns three restaurants in San Francisco, Tyler Florence told a crowd on Saturday that when he no longer walks the Earth, he wants to be remembered this way: “Tyler Florence made great fried chicken.”
During his cooking demonstration for VIP guests of Palm Desert Food & Wine’s Grand Tastings event March 25, Florence noted that the dish was one of his earliest and fondest memories of growing up in South Carolina. After moving to California in 2007, he put a Golden State spin on the Southern dish with herbs, garlic, and lemon — and now it is a signature dish at his Wayfare Tavern.
Using the sous vide method, Florence called his demonstration “a little bit of science and a little bit of my grandmother.” For those whose kitchens lack the technical equipment, Florence noted that Food & Wine magazine has posted online a “home version” of the recipe. The key, he said, was in slow-cooking the chicken (“Protein doesn’t like high heat”) and further recommended combining rice flour with all-purpose flour in a one-to-four ratio for the batter.
In addition to offering culinary tips, Florence revealed that he loves the Coachella Valley and “almost opened a restaurant here 20 years ago.” Then he hinted he might consider the possibility again if the crowd expressed enthusiasm (which, of course, they did).
Exuding the personality and sense of humor that makes a chef a celebrity, Aarti Sequeira took the demonstration stage with Coachella Valley farmer Mark Tadros to highlight the use of the local fruit in an Indian dish: dhokla (hushpuppies) with date-chile crisp. This demo was also limited to specially ticketed guests.
READ NEXT: Do top chefs listen to music in the kitchen?
Sequeira was born in Mumbai, moved to Dubai, and attended school in England before coming to the United States and finding fame after winning The Next Food Network Star. She is now a celebrity ambassador for the California Date Commission.
While preparing the dish, she noted that chile crisp had become the “it” condiment. She explained how it can add flavor to a food that otherwise “doesn’t have any lipstick on it.” And she called the smell of curry leaves “my childhood.” But along with the spicy ingredients, she emphasized the wonder of dates. “One of the sweetest fruits in the world grows in the harshest climates,” she said. “And it is one of the most labor-intensive crops in the world.”
Tadros then explained the steps in producing dates that require so much labor by hand: dethorning the trees, pollinating the fruit, thinning, bagging, and harvesting. He further noted that it can take a tree 10 or even 12 years to yield its first dates.
Sequeira told the crowd that she had visited Tadros’ date farm and hand-pollinated one of the trees. Then she asked him, “How did my dates turn out?” Tadros quipped, “Great. We sold them for way more than the others.” More seriously, he added that the American Heart Association recommends people eat seven dates a day.
In both demonstrations, attendees had the opportunity to sample the featured dishes. Of course, the larger Grand Tastings event, which spreads through tented areas and a central, open-air garden area, included additional chef demonstrations throughout the day, alongside a bevy of food and drink vendors offering samples of their signature items.
Keeping the annual event fresh, this year’s arena included many first-time wineries and distributors. New Zealand Wine Navigator brought wines from six of its portfolio of 15 family businesses. They included a sparkling blanc de blanc from Daniel Le Brun, originally from Champagne, France, and now following the “methode traditionelle” in Marlborough. Regional manager David Harlow stated that the structured pinot noirs from New Zealand would easily age 15 years, versus closer to five years for a California or Oregon Pinot.
Also new to the festival was Tournesol Wine (tournesol is French for sunflower), located in the Coombsville region — only Carneros is farther south in Napa Valley. Estate manager Kina Kreer explained that the small producer (between 1,000 and 2,000 cases a year) has no tasting room so relies on events such as Palm Desert Food & Wine to reach consumers. The four wines available included a Bordeaux blend, a sauvignon blanc/sémillon, a grenache rosé, and a 100 percent cabernet sauvignon.
Another first-timer, Ernest Vineyards’ Caitlin O’Connell — whose business card identified her title as “Experience Engineer” — pointed out that their Sonoma winery is an all-female, family-owned and -operated enterprise. Ernest’s aligoté has a low alcohol content of 11.2 percent, and O’Connell described it as “between a chardonnay and pinot grigio,” noting that there are only a couple hundred acres of the grape grown in the United States (primarily in Santa Barbara County).
Another grape that’s scarce in the United States, the Italian-grown fiano, made an appearance at the booth for Sicilia Vineyards of Yuba City in the Sacramento Valley AVA. Yuba City is known for pizza, prunes, and walnuts,” owner David Smith said, adding that there were only three wineries within 10 miles of his. The winery also brought wines made from lesser-known barbera and primativo grapes. Smith, who has friends from school days (including junior high and medical school) living in the Coachella Valley, has been to Palm Desert Food & Wine the past three years as an attendee.
More first-timers at the festival included Avensole Winery of Temecula, Barra of Mendocino, and Rusack Vineyards of Santa Barbara County. Though a returning winery, Ascension Cellars brought exciting blends in their repertoire, including grenache blanc–marsanne–roussanne and chardonnay–marsanne–roussanne–viognier.
Complementing the cooking demonstrations and wine tastings were multiple restaurants and food and drink vendors doling out bites and sips throughout the festival venue. Needless to say, most guests left stuffed.
A second, separately ticketed day of Grand Tastings takes place today, Sunday, March 26, from noon to 3 p.m. at The Gardens on El Paseo in Palm Desert. Curtis Stone, Yolanda Gampp, and Afrim Pristine are among the chefs who will present demonstrations. A limited number of lucky guests will begin the culinary adventure early at the sold-out Sunday Brunch With Bubbles & Spritz event.
For more information about Palm Desert Food & Wine, or to purchase tickets for today’s Grand Tastings, visit palmdesertfoodandwine.com.