|Tyler Florence and Marcus Samuelsson|
As some of San Francisco’s most acclaimed toques cut through a giant green ceremonial noodle to the looping strains of OutKast’s lively rap song “Hey Ya,” it was clear that this fourth edition of SF Chefs had come into its own quirky personality. The annual food, wine and spirits festival, hosted by the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, is an ambitious undertaking. This year’s celebration included four giant events in the Grand Tasting Tent in Union Square, six nighttime parties in various locations, and almost 30 classes and demos at the Westin St. Francis Hotel, all squeezed into the better part of half a week of luxurious indulgence.
With many events happening simultaneously, it was sometimes a challenge to create the best itinerary - but what a wonderful problem it is to have too many interesting choices. Here’s an amuse bouche of what happened in the midst of the madness (plus photo slideshow below):
• When we arrived at our first event, called 49 Square Miles in celebration of the seven-by-seven size of San Francisco, we mistakenly thought we were headed to an all-dessert party but quickly discovered that we weren’t allowed to touch the best sugar in the place. That’s because the 49 Square Miles Pastry and Cake Competition had invited local pastry chefs to enter cakes based on the city and they had to remain intact in order to be judged. It certainly took a lot of restraint to keep from sneaking furtive bites and wondering what was inside of the wondrous creations. Ristobar’s Gary Rulli ultimately proved triumphant with “Vesta,” which immortalized the street he grew up on in candy form below an elaborate red sugar replica of the Golden Gate Bridge.
• It was lovely to see many chefs and restaurants challenge themselves with what they’d serve to 1,000 people in the Grand Tasting Tent events and not take lazy shortcuts. Ideas were often downright whimsical, as when Spruce set out trays of Bloody Mary-infused heirloom tomatoes and Per Diem quickly ran out of bacon and egg ravioli. Sure, there were a lot of sliders on offer, but they typically went the extra mile to reach refined territory, as in Parallel 37 chef Ron Siegel’s pork sliders with pickled vegetables and curried brioche. Other items spotted frequently: Burrata, ceviche, deviled eggs.
• “Did you win Top Chef Masters?” one eater asked chef Chris Cosentino as he passed out plates of pig head and tail, a set of dishes collectively known as "Thelma and Louise."
“I’m sorry, what?” he pretended not to hear, a wry smile across his face. No secret spoilers were revealed in the tent, but Cosentino is kicking booty in the competition so far.
• Chefs brought their A game to the three-day Eater Chef Challenge, but in the end the competitors were no match for the champions David Bazirgan (Fifth Floor) and Mark Dommen (One Market). Dommen is this year’s “Hottest Chef” on Eater.com and Bazirgan is the 2011 winner, so they were dubbed “Team Pretty.” Fabio Viviani, a former Top Chef contestant who served as a judge during some of the battles, joked that his being a judge was “payback” for being kicked off of two cooking competitions on TV, but he was still very complimentary as he evaluated each dish.
• San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer was fascinating as his silhouette appeared, Alfred Hitchcock-style, on the “Inside Scoop” panel. He was interviewed by New York restaurateur Drew Nieporent. He talked about the Internet breeding a “lack of civility” with regards to citizen critiques of restaurants on sites such as Yelp. And as for anonymity during his three visits to each restaurant he covers, he says he’d prefer to be anonymous twice and recognized on the last meal so that he could experience the range of how customers are treated.
• Olympic figure skating champ turned Food Network host Brian Boitano and old-school restaurateur and television personality Martin Yan made an unlikely duo at SF Chefs, cooking chicken dumplings together in the Grand Tasting Tent’s final session on Sunday. Yan’s M.Y. China restaurant opens later this year in San Francisco, but we think these two should team up for a new cooking show.
• Marcus Samuelsson and Tyler Florence, handsome studs that they are, frequently caused rubbernecks in the Grand Tasting Tent as people strained to get a look or a picture. The Illy Coffee tent was crammed full when they interviewed each other about their illustrious careers for FoodieChap.com.
• The sight of a smiling chef Hubert Keller in his second favorite role as a DJ spinning at the opening night afterparty at E&O Asian Kitchen has come to symbolize the nighttime fun at SF Chefs and this year was no different. But Keller should also be given accolades for the inventive mix of food that his Fleur de Lys restaurant served up in the Grand Tasting Tent, a carrot and cardamom gelee and mousse studded with colorful bits of mixed vegetables. Veggies for dessert might not be a brand-new frontier, but it is symbolic of the playfulness to be found under the big top at SF Chefs.