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Taste of Orange County

This annual event shows foodies what OC chefs are capable of.

Beef cheeks braised with market herbs, quinoa gremolata, wild rocket, and marinated tomatoes

Taste It  
Chefs participating in the Taste of OC Farm
to Table Dinner, which will take place from
6-8 p.m. on June 16, are Patrick Glennon,
Santa Monica Seafood; Rob Wilson, Montage
Laguna Beach; Greg Daniels, Haven Gastropub
and Taco Asymlum; Justin Monson, The Vine
and St. Roy Chef’s Pub; Paul Buchanan,
Primal Alchemy; Craig Connole, K’ya Bistro
and House of Big Fish; and Ryan Adams,
Three Seventy Common. The cost for the
dinner is $199 per person. Proceeds from the
Farm to Table Dinner will benefit the Culinary
Liberation Front and the Orange County Food Bank.  
tasteofoc.com  ::  culinaryliberationfront.com

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” – Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

These words, although spoken long ago, before Taste of Orange County was even a rumble in anyone’s stomach, could just as well serve as the motto for the annual event taking place June 16-17 at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine. Virginia Woolf was, of course, speaking from a place of feminism, of women and their roles as writers and characters in fiction in her extended essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” but the sentiment is nonetheless one that collides head on with the Taste of OC.

The idea behind Taste of OC is simple: Gather more than 30 of the county’s most well-known, new and beloved restaurants in one place to sample their food, do chef demos and generally show fellow foodies what OC chefs are capable of. In addition to these tastings, the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater will also be home to wine and tequila seminars, a sports lounge for the golf-inclined to watch the U.S. Open and the OC Cocktail Classic, where OC’s best mixologists converge to create innovative drinks, with you, the tasters, as the judges.

But despite all this food fare, the true piece de résistance at Taste of OC this year is the Farm to Table Dinner. Presented by five of OC’s top chefs and featuring local, sustainable ingredients, the dinner is open to 200 guests, who will be seated atop Verizon Wireless Amphitheater’s stage while the chefs prepare for them a five-course dinner from the orchestra section.

This isn’t just any fancy dinner; it’s one with a message. The group behind the Farm to Table Dinner, the Culinary Liberation Front, is comprised of a growing group of Orange County chefs who have come together to share their craft and exchange ideas about the restaurant industry – namely, about how to teach nutritional education to the less fortunate and how to leave the smallest environmental footprint possible. This latter goal is especially evident at the Farm to Table Dinner, whose mission it is to use and promote only local, organic, sustainable, and consciously sourced ingredients from within a 200-mile radius – right down to the salt from Carlsbad in San Diego County. This is accomplished with the help of many, including farmers, fishermen, ranchers, and vintners whose efforts are lauded through the respect given to their products by the chefs involved in the CLF.

We had the pleasure of tasting a sample menu for the Farm to Table Dinner on a recent evening in a private dining room at La Casa del Camino in Laguna Beach, where six chefs from the Culinary Liberation Front (Patrick Glennon, Santa Monica Seafood and CLF founder; Paul Buchanan, founder of Primal Alchemy Catering; Scott Brandon, owner and founder of Linx in Orange; Craig Connole, executive chef at K’ya Bistro and House of Big Fish; Ryan Adams, chef and owner of Three Seventy Common in Laguna Beach; and Justin Monson, chef and owner of Vine and St. Roy Chef’s Pub in San Clemente), along with local fishermen and farmers, gathered to taste, discuss and experience the importance of utilizing our own local, natural resources to produce healthy, sustainable food. And the thing is that it really does taste better. From the fish caught by local Dory fisherman Steve Escobar to the seafood sourced by Santa Barbara commercial fisherman and diver Stephanie Mutz to vegetables and fruit from South Coast Farms in San Juan Capistrano, the flavors are true to the product, unmuted by hundreds or even thousands of miles of travel, refrigeration and/or freezing, and exposure to any number of different environmental elements. The strawberries in the fruit-infused water taste like those you always have high hopes of finding at the supermarket but don’t, despite their flaw-free looks, and the fish, especially in its raw state, has the unmistakable flavor of the ocean that it just came out of – the one right in our backyard.

Our sample menu began with tray-passed hors d’oeuvres – an oyster shooter with South Coast Farm’s cucumber-jalapeño water and fresh-shaved tamarind and horseradish prepared by Patrick Glennon; and cucumber soup with homemade yogurt and dill, Kune Kune pork crostini with three-hour pickle relish and chives, and spring pea soup with mint crema fresca, all prepared by Chef Paul Buchanan of Primal Alchemy Catering. Glennon speaks passionately about the mission of the CLF, which has grown to include more than 500 chefs, restaurateurs, culinary students, and foodies interested in celebrating great food and supporting change for a more sustainable planet. His passion is contagious, really. After 26 years in the restaurant industry, comprised of stints in some of the world’s most famous kitchens (under Jacques Maximin at Negresco in Nice, France; under Alain Ducasse at Hotel Juana in Juan les Pines, France; under Bruno Cirino at Le Grand Hotel in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France; and more), Glennon has developed not only the technical knowledge necessary to utilize native ingredients to their full potential but the personality to spread the word about sustainable eating.

The technical side comes out, however, in the remainder of our Farm to Table Dinner. Chef Buchanan serves a fresh, colorful nasturtium salad with Long Beach Urban Farm greens, citrus and shaved fennel, and simple roasted and seasoned vegetables. There’s no fanfare here – no sauces, no gimmicks and no excess – and it’s not needed. The sugar snap peas and rutabagas from Gaytan Farm taste just-picked, as do the Swiss chard and rainbow carrots from Tamai Family Farms.

Chef Craig Connole, the fish preparation expert, literally turned to his own backyard to supply the citrus for his dish of local day boat halibut with Ensenada rock crab, serrano chiles and Carlsbad sea salt, and the day boat black cod a la plancha prepared with Temecula olive oil, chives and South Coast Farms lemon had been caught earlier by Steve Escobar, a fisherman with the Dory Fleet based out of Newport Beach. It was the uni menudo with Carlsbad Aqua Farms mussels and fava beans (again, from Chef Connole’s backyard), however, that drew the most attention. Served inside of a spiny sea urchin shell, the soup was substantial and creamy and had the distinct taste of uni (sea urchin), which had been caught by diver Stephanie Mutz. Prized for its golden yellow roe, the meat of the urchin was buttery in texture, with a nuttiness not commonly found in seafood, and a lingering sweetness. This is a dish to remember.

Next up: Chef Ryan Adams’s beef cheeks braised with Laguna Farmers market herbs, organic quinoa gremolata, Kenter Canyon Farms wild rocket, and Irvine Farmers marinated tomatoes. Now, we’ve had good beef cheeks before, and we’re big fans of Chef Adams’s Three Seventy Common restaurant, but this dish was one for the record books. Tender, tasty and healthy without flaunting its nutritional cred, we were impressed not only with the dimension of flavor but the simplicity with which it was prepared.   

Dessert was another spin on local ingredients.  Lavender and Meyer lemon pudding cornettes were as pretty as they were tart and silky, and a crunchy, freshly baked cone housed the definition of a light, refreshing end to a meal we won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

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