james beard luncheon palm desert

Food Takes Center Stage

Palm Desert Food & Wine’s James Beard Luncheon serves up serious tips and playful banter.

Janice Kleinschmidt Current Digital, Restaurants

james beard luncheon palm desert

While the name of this creation has the word, burnt, in it, don't be fooled. SoCal chef Jamie Gwen's Basque burnt cheesecake includes passion fruit, candied pistachios, and edible flower confetti.

Afrim Pristine hit the nail on the head when he declared, “As much as food has to be special, it has to be entertaining.”

The Canadian cheese master issued his statement while demonstrating the preparation of a bufala mozzarella salad at Palm Desert Food & Wine’s James Beard four-course luncheon, presented by Agua Caliente Casinos, March 25 in Palm Desert. As a complementary event to Fashion Week El Paseo , the food and wine festival takes place in the same tent-and-courtyard venue. When Food Network’s pastry expert Zac Young expressed good-natured dismay over the lack of a runway (removed to accommodate tables for the luncheon, co-emcee Carla Hall (best known for ABC’s The Chew) strutted down an aisle and executed a model’s turn to show she needed no raised platform for a runway.

VIDEO: Carla Hall makes her entrance at the Jame Beard Luncheon during Palm Desert Food & Wine.

Pristine was the first celebrity chef on deck as festival volunteers served attendees dishes of focaccia and microgreens-garnished bufala mozzarella with cherry tomatoes and a genius touch of paper-thin cucumber with a thick vinaigrette featuring marcona almonds. The vinaigrette played the role of a supporting actor that takes home the Oscar. Indeed, Pristine took pains to explain the importance of using the best olive oil, adequately emulsifying it with balsamic vinegar, and adding no less than six turns of a peppermill. He revealed that he had made the vinaigrette for luncheon attendees at 6 a.m. that morning so its components would have time to meld into a rich concoction.

Afrim Pristine created a Mediterranean bufala mozzarella salad for the first course.

MasterChef season six winner Claudia Sandoval of San Diego showcased her Mazatlán background with a second-course scallop pomegranate augachile. She began by explaining that the “U12” designation for the scallops she was using indicated they were of a size that equated to 12 scallops per pound. Slicing them horizontally in half, she joked that a home chef could cut them horizontally into thirds “if you’re serving them to not your favorite people.”

Claudia Sandoval served a scallop pomegranate aguachile.

Her sauce included pomegranate juice, jalapeño, and freshly squeezed lime juice. Sandoval’s interspersed bursts of laughter, combined with her molten-steel-red hair, exuded a sense of confidence that no doubt helped her win a MasterChef trophy and should be adopted by home chefs. With a roomful of food aficionados focused on her, she said they were the first to hear that she had just finished filming a show for the Food Network, titled A Taste of the Border and premiering May 5.

Curtis Stone speaks with Mark Tadros of Aziz Farms in the Coachella Valley during the luncheon.

Australian Curtis Stone, a Michelin-star restaurateur and celebrity chef on multiple television shows, began his third-course demonstration by making potato foam with nitrous oxide to lend the tubers “a starchy flavor but not a starchy texture.” Attendees were heard chuckling when Stone instructed adding “a tiny bit of butter” while adding a healthy scoop and “a drop of cream” when adding a healthy pour.

But his dish — braised short rib with potato foam, spring vegetables (asparagus, peas, and fava beans), and morel mushroom sauce — looked far from heavy on the plate with a white potato foam gracing the meat.

Syndicated radio host and chef Jamie Gwen brought a sweet finale to the luncheon with her recipe for Basque burnt cheesecake. “You can proudly go home and burn something and tell all your friends it was intentional,” she said, adding that her recipe was “foolproof.”


Chef Jamie Gwen sprinkles edible flowers on top of her basque burnt cheesecake.

She further declared the San Sebastian, Spain-inspired recipe — baked at 400 degrees to render a dark caramelized exterior — results in “the cheesecake that made New York jealous” (referring to the dessert’s classic Big Apple style). Gwen elevates her version with whipped cream, passion fruit sauce, candied pistachios, and edible flowers pulsed in a food processor into “confetti.”

Wine pairings for the luncheon included, in order, a 2020 Robert Mondavi sauvignon blanc from Napa Valley, a 2018 Talley Vineyards 2018 estate chardonnay from Arroyo Grande, a 2018 ZD Winery 50th anniversary cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley, and a 2019 Harvey & Harriet red blend from San Luis Obispo.

The luncheon benefitted two charitable organizations with efforts to address food insecurity: the local FIND Food Bank and James Beard Foundation.

Attendees may not replicate the dishes they tasted at home (how many people have nitrous oxide canisters in their cupboards?), but they were able to glean tips from professional chefs and, as Pristine suggested, be entertained.

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