There was one particular night when the essence of last weekend’s Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival came into perfect focus. It happened amid smoky wafts of roasting pig in a scene that juxtaposed the haute and the hearty.
It happened as a lively crowd of mostly young, well-heeled foodies mingled and munched at the festival’s Miami vs. Palm Beach “Street Food” battle on the grounds of the Four Seasons Resort Saturday night. Away from the crowd, in a far-off corner where the resort’s pool deck overlooks the Atlantic Ocean, New Orleans chef Stephen Stryjewski tended to a 60-pound whole hog roasting inside a Caja China box grill.
He worked in the dark to the sound of ocean waves, at first scrambling to keep the roasting box’s temperature to an even 250 degrees. Two rounds of fancy coal and briquettes had shot up the temps to 450 degrees. Stryjewski, winner of the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef: South and all-around pork scholar (his flagship restaurant is named Cochon), drove to Publix to buy some cheaper charcoal. That did the trick.
He seasoned the meat simply with salt and set it to roast. In the four hours of roasting, the nearby party buzzed with food TV celebs, next-level street foods and hypnotic acoustic-roots sounds from the Sosos band.
But the night’s best bites were still slow-roasting inside that grill box. When that pork was hoisted and delivered to the resort’s tony lounge for a chefs’ after-party, the festival reached its truest expression.
This festival may be enjoyed by food and dining aficionados, and it may be a sunny draw for big-name food TV celebs, but at its core, it is a chefs’ fest.
“Did you taste that boudin blanc?” Palm Beach Gardens chef Tim Lipman (Coolinary Café) asked us, referring to the juicy, New Orleans-style pork sausage Stryjewski’s Cochon crew had grilled and sliced for wee-hour bites. “Man, it was nice. Nice!”
Visiting chefs – among them James Beard Award winners, semifinalists and nominees alike – watched in awe as Stryjewski went to work on the roast pig like a jazz vibraphone player, carving, tapping into crackling, adding roast onion mojo on the downbeat and a light, percussive rain of coarse salt over the splayed pork meat. The result of his hard work: pork that was as decadent as it was down-home.
It was a meal by chefs for (primarily) chefs. This is what seems to set apart the Palm Beach festival.
Chefs at this festival are not cooking for the masses packed into oversold events. They’re not catering to beach parties masquerading as food events, as happens in other national food festivals. At this small, more intimate festival, chefs can sample one another’s cooking as they trade stories, talk smack about golf and beach volleyball, and focus on food and friends.
“Chefs talk. It’s a small community,” Stryjewski said a couple of nights earlier. He said he’s come to the festival four years in a row because of the “high caliber” of chefs and food.
Stryjewski says Palm Beach fest-goers seem genuinely interested in meeting the chefs who prepare the festival’s dishes: “These people that come here are interested in the food.”
The wee-hour pork scene is now just one of the seasonings in the larger festival stew. Here are other memorable ingredients of this year’s fest.
DAY 1 – Parallel dinners
The festival’s opening night showcased the talents of two casts of chefs at parallel feasts.
Chef Clay Conley brought together a stellar crew at his buzzy Buccan bistro. The two-time James Beard Award semifinalist was joined by chef Stryjewski, Boston chef/restaurateur Ken Oringer, Top Chef Masters chef Anita Lo and acclaimed Cleveland chef Jonathan Sawyer.
“We always have a good time. Laugh, crack open a few beers,” said Conley, who made a decadent spiced Colorado lamb — a shoulder wrapped in lamb belly, with a side of his so-labeled “hot ass Harissa” sauce.
It was the kind of event where diners and chefs could have long conversations tableside over the origins of regional cuisine.
Meanwhile, at PB Catch, a trio of powerhouse women chefs joined resident executive chef Aaron Black in creating a multi-course dinner that paid tribute to sustainable fish and seafood.
Headlining the festival’s “Sustain” dinner were chefs Gabrielle Hamilton (Prune, NY), Elizabeth Falkner (Top Chef and Iron Chef alum) and Virginia Willis (Southern food authority). Willis dressed her signature grits with a golden tilefish Provencale. Falkner hand-rolled and cut Calabrese-style fileja pasta, which she topped with a fennel-scented and gloriously spicy ‘nduja pork sausage and clams. Hamilton offered a buttery brown rice dotted with sweet red shrimp, duck cracklings and meaty wild mushrooms. Host chef, Black, delivered an outstanding yellow eye snapper on a baked potato puree, with baby collards and a velvet mushroom Madeira sauce.
DAY 2 — Love at the kick-off party
It wasn’t until he started to kneel that David Sabin felt nervous. Sabin, the founder of the Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival, had wandered away from the four-day fest’s official kickoff party at The Breakers Friday night.
He led his longtime girlfriend, chef Lindsay Autry (“Top Chef” alum), to a quiet, oceanside spot. She wondered why a photographer was tailing them. It all became clear when he dropped to one knee and asked her to marry him.
“She said yes!” Sabin, 35, said later, as the announcement was made during the luxe affair.
“I thought it might happen pretty soon, but not tonight,” Autry said.
Autry, 32, first met Sabin when she was the executive chef at the former Omphoy hotel, when she prepared a lavish dinner for Sabin’s 30th birthday. They started dating officially a year and a half ago.
Autry may have been stunned — but her family wasn’t. At a family wedding in October, Sabin asked her father, George, for his blessing to marry her.
They celebrated with food by Breakers chef Jeff Simms, which ranged from caviar and vodka tastings to coconut shrimp served inside halved coconuts.
They partied until late at a Four Seasons karaoke after-party hosted by sandwich king Jeff Mauro. That after-party existed for one reason – to keep the fun going. And it delivered, with host Mauro on the mic, food personalities milling about, and the greatest version of the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” of all time. The rocker: chef Marc Murphy.
DAY 3 — Cookouts
In the afternoon, chefs gathered poolside at the Four Seasons for Saturday’s big “Grillin’ N Chillin’” cookout. Robert Irvine (Food Network’s “Restaurant: Impossible”), who had led a rowdy group of young chefs at the festival’s Kids Kitchen cooking class earlier in the day, served a mean grilled rack of lamb over farro with goat cheese, while Charleston star chef Mike Lata grilled oysters that would be topped with cured mullet roe. And Carolina barbecue expert Elizabeth Karmel grilled a deliciously thin pizza topped with cured salmon and herb-infused cheese.
Later that night, at the fest’s “Street Food” showdown, a team of five Palm Beach chefs took on five Miami chefs in the festival’s first ever street food cooking competition at the Four Seasons, and it was hard not to call this knife fight a draw.
Buccan chef Clay Conley won the people’s choice award for his Asian-style fried chicken bun, while Miami chef Timon Balloo — a one-time executive chef at the former Omphoy under Michelle Bernstein — won the Blogger’s Choice and the Best Bite, which was judged by a panel of celebrity judges, including Chopped’s Ted Allen. Conley won a Big Green Egg smoker/grill as the people’s choice.
Each Palm Beach chef competed head-to-head with a Miami chef in one of five categories: fried chicken, hot dog, meatball, taco and the wildcard “on a stick.”
“The Miami guys love to talk smack,” Conley said in earshot of the Miami chefs.
Conley applied his bend toward Asian flavors to a fried chicken bun that was crispy, moist and bursting with fresh flavors. Balloo’s richly marinated and deeply flavorful Korean barbecue flap meat steak skewer with a fresh kimchi slaw and shrimp chip won over both sets of critics — the celebrity judges Allen, Robert Irvine, Marc Murphy, and Jeff Mauro, and The Post’s own Carlos Frías, who served as Blogger’s Choice judge.
DAY 4 — Finesse and finale
In the a.m.: Blue skies, a gentle breeze and the smell of freshly carved corned beef brisket. That was Sunday morning at Café Boulud, where star chef Daniel Boulud hosted a sumptuous brunch on the fest’s closing day.
“The mood is light, the food is classic,” Boulud observed during the alfresco brunch. So classic, in fact, that the stuffed pumpkin oozing with Gruyere, black trumpets and bacon was an ode to his own past: It’s his mothers recipe.
Boulud and his team of Palm Beach chefs set out a spread that included a carving station, grilled and raw seafood stations, soups in shooters, cured fish, tables of locally harvested vegetables, and stations for visiting chefs Gabrielle Hamilton (Prune, NYC) and Christina Tosi (Momofuku Milk Bar, NYC).
Tosi’s desserts were Milk Bar classics: crack pie and birthday cake truffles. The crack pie is rightfully named: sweet enough to send you home with a sugar rush, a new cavity and a craving for an endless supply of it. Tosi said the pie is a blend of a Southern chess pie and a St. Louis gooey butter cake.
In the p.m.: The festival wrapped Sunday evening with its signature Grand Tasting. The foodie favorite of the evening seemed to be braised short rib. We saw at least 5 different variations of this dish, but our favorite came from The Eating House in Coral Gables, who did a savory braised short rib over a burnt cauliflower puree, topped with raw cauliflower and black truffle and bone marrow jus. Other contenders for best bite included Coolinary Cafe’s lemongrass rosemary chicken sausage, Dada’s crab cake with sherry mustard, and 3800 Ocean’s lemon crème puff.
But the most exciting moment by far was watching Chef Eric Grutka take home the trophy for the third year in a row at the Chef Throwdown Finale. The chef and owner of Ian’s Tropical Grill in Stuart went head-to-head with Dada’s Bruce Feingold and Pistache sous-chef Sam Horrocks, preparing cuts of teres major and pork tenderloin for a star-studded panel of judges, including Food Network stars Ted Allen, Marc Murphy and Jeff Mauro.
Grutka’s winning dish: the teres major rubbed with Hozon (fermented, stone-ground seasoning) and served over creamed greens and blistered tomato, presented next to seared pork over quinoa..
A perfect ending to a perfect festival.
FOODIE FEST HEAVEN
View the full range of festival images at PalmBeachPost.com/foodwinefest