Afrim Pristine prepares the first course, a burrata salad.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MOLLIE KIMBERLING
As more than 100 guests with sparkling wine in hand waited to be seated inside the tented dining room at The Gardens on El Paseo, talented staff were busy backstage preparing their plates. When doors opened, eager faces flowed in to find their seats among rows and rows of tables facing a large stage whose sight built instant anticipation for the mouthwatering event ahead: Palm Desert Food & Wine’s signature James Beard Gourmet Four-Course Luncheon.
The annual gathering takes place ahead of two days of Grand Tastings and amid a flurry of other separately ticketed events (think: chef-helmed dinners, a cheese and wine presentation, a demo on cooking with California dates). The luncheon brings together a cast of notable chefs, who prepare their plates live onstage, sharing their secret recipes and providing expert advice, so diners walk away equipped to re-create their specialty dishes like a pro. Proceeds support the James Beard Foundation in its goal to help budding chefs and culinary arts organizations across America flourish and FIND Food Bank, the Coachella Valley’s regional food bank.
Guests took their places, and it wasn’t long before five-time luncheon host Zac Young — a bubbly pastry chef known for creating the PieCaken (a cake with pie filling) and for his regular appearances on culinary shows — greeted the audience with jokes and a funny video detailing his favorite activities in Palm Springs.
After the warm welcome, everyone was introduced to the first of the wine pairings: a light, soon-to-be-released 2021 Sonoma Coast chardonnay produced by The Calling Wine, a Sonoma County company co-founded by Emmy Award–winning sports commentator Jim Nantz and his close friend Peter Deutsch.
Then, it was time to taste. Afrim Pristine, Canada’s premier maître fromager (cheese master), took the stage as the first course, burrata with fresh peas and watercress, arrived. Featuring a soft burrata ball, peas (Pristine’s favorite), fresh mint, watercress, sesame seeds, toasted crostinis, and chopped pistachios with a delicious aged balsamic vinegar and olive oil dressing, the dish provided the perfect palate warmup, leaving hungry attendees wanting more. While whisking the dressing, Pristine emphasized the importance of selecting quality oil and vinegar and emphasized his love and respect for cheese, a passion that has brought him global success — and his own TV show.
“Think of this cheese like a canvas. It wants to be painted on. I am Picasso now,” he told a captive audience. “The best part of the dish honestly is this dressing, which seeps into the cheese. … Don’t waste the vinaigrette. It’s kind of the magic of the whole dish.”
It was a refreshing spin on what you might normally expect of a burrata salad. There were no tomatoes or leaves of basil to be found. Rather, his recipe leaned into bright, spring-forward ingredients.
“The theme of this dish is respect. I have a huge amount of respect for cheese. I wouldn’t be here today without cheese,” he said. “My dish today is like writing a love letter to cheese.”
While guests enjoyed their first bites of the midday meal, Young introduced Debbie Espinosa, the CEO of FIND Food Bank. “Over the last five years,” she shared, “we’ve had the ability to give over 200,000 meals to the community because of this event right here. And we couldn’t do it without everybody that comes and donates.”
The second course was equally light, showcasing Food Network habitué Jamie Gwen’s ability to elevate simple yet wholesome ingredients. Two fluffy cream puffs filled with a French pâté-like mousse flanked a strawberry rhubarb salad sweetened with vanilla vinaigrette and hazelnuts; salty dried prosciutto added a touch of crunch on top. Guests seemed to fixate on Gwen’s ability to re-create her cream puff recipe onstage in such a short amount of time. The salad course, as Young called it, was paired with a 2021 Founders Reserve pinot noir produced by ZD Wines in Napa Valley.
After the starters, Food Court Wars and The Great Food Truck Race star Tyler Florence took the stage to thunderous applause. His third course was surf and turf — a big hit for foodies who love Florence’s cookbooks on backyard grilling. Florence bathed his center-cut beef tenderloin medallion with a béarnaise sauce made of butter, eggs, tarragon reduction, and salt and topped it with Yukon gold potatoes dressed in truffle paste and a buttery, lemony lobster tail. Reserved seasoning let the flavors of the tenderloin and lobster shine. The red wine pairing, a 2019 cabernet sauvignon by The Calling, provided a smooth finish.
The luncheon paused for a brief intermission before dessert made its debut. Yolanda Gampp, known as the “Beyoncé of Cakes,” delighted with a pretzel-crusted cheesecake with brûléed lemon curd and ice wine–soaked summer berries. Onstage, the talented pastry chef, cookbook author, and YouTube star beat the eggs and mascarpone cheese into her batter and used a flame torch like a pro to give the cheesecake a caramelized texture. A light 2021 chardonnay by ZD Wines was the final pairing.
As plates were cleared, guests grabbed their goodie bags filled with California dates, fresh basil, and other culinary treats and made their way to meet the stars, who stayed to mingle with the happy diners. It was clear the chefs were here for their fans and eager to share their love of great food.
Palm Desert Food & Wine continues through Sunday, March 26, at The Gardens on El Paseo in Palm Desert. For more information about the festival, or to purchase tickets, visit palmdesertfoodandwine.com.